Gene Collier: Dan Rooney lived his life with powerful humility
April 14, 2017 12:00 AM
Steelers owner Dan Rooney makes his way on to the field at Wembley.
Steelers owner Dan Rooney during the Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, in 2000.
By Gene Collier / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Dan Rooney first went to Steelers camp when he was 5, bouncing around with his brother in the back seat of a monstrous sedan owned by his father, among whose other possessions were a highly suspect football team in an even more suspect new venture called the National Football League.
On the field that day in 1937, Dan positioned himself near the sideline, close to the action, so frighteningly close that when the offense ran a power sweep, some adjacent adults snatched him up and swept him out of the path of the thundering linemen.
I thought of that story often in recent summers, particularly his last one in Latrobe, when despite the searing pain that curled his spine, he was there every day, again now frighteningly close, watching the latest exertions of a franchise he had carved into a monument, a professional sports gold standard. It hurt to see him appear vulnerable, because the duality of the phrase his brother Art Jr. once used to describe big brother Dan will echo forever in my memory: “Tough as a boot, smart as a whip.”
In an industry bursting with machismo and hemorrhaging testosterone, the toughest character around until his death Thursday was Daniel Milton Rooney, “DMR” by the family shorthand, a former North Catholic quarterback for whom a violent game ran deep in the DNA, a pilot who crash-landed his plane near the county airport at age 69 and walked away to joke about it.
But there was no swagger to him. Swagger was a sin. Commanded like his four brothers to “not carry on like big shots” by their brawling, rosary-wielding father, Art Rooney Sr., Dan Rooney never lost an ounce of his capacious humility. Even at the height of influence, kingmaker to NFL commissioners, ambassador to Ireland, architect of the Rooney Rule and benefactor to countless cultural and literary initiatives from Pittsburgh to Dublin and back, Rooney was never in his own view above even the most menial undertakings.
One summer at the turn of the century, he absorbed a serious infection in his leg while moving boxes of books around in the attic of the family home on North Lincoln Avenue. It hospitalized him.
“You know,” I said to him after he had made one his patented full recoveries, “people of means have been known to have that kind of thing done for them, heavy lifting and such.”
“Uh-huh,” he winked. “I’ve been hearing that a lot.”
The summer before last, we were sitting in a training camp office at Saint Vincent, watching a baseball game on TV (he was a big Pirates and Penguins fan) as a half-dozen young staffers were busily unpacking boxes of office supplies.
“What are ya gonna do with those boxes?” he said to no one particularly.
“Don’t know,” came the response. “Throw ’em away I guess.”
“Maybe I’ll take ’em,” said the franchise’s chairman, who then paused and said, “Naw, I don’t want to be takin’ your boxes.”
That’s right, don’t mind him. He’s just Dan Rooney.
Before every game, no matter what he was doing, the owner would put down his binoculars or his walkie-talkie and head to the press box to chat with the writers. He dealt inside jokes to the local folks and charmed the cynicism right off the national types. He got his own hot dog at halftime, queuing up dutifully to spear a tube of pig fat and slap it on a bun. He would sooner cut himself than cut the line.
Then he would go back to the box — not an owner’s suite — the box with his football guys, general manager Kevin Colbert, son and now team president Art Rooney II, vice president Omar Khan. He would sit in the back row. If you could spy him there, you wouldn’t know from his bespectacled face whether the Steelers were up 30-0 or down 30-0, but his brain was going 200 miles per hour, and he wielded the kind of football influence that comes with having not only seen but analyzed just about every single game in franchise history.
Dan Rooney was so real he was universally accessible. He shared an instantaneous identity with people regardless of evident dichotomies. You might wonder, for example, what commonalities were in play between Rooney, elderly decorated Eastern establishment corporate titan of immense influence, and Ike Taylor, young black son of a single mom from Gretna, La., but Ike was so comfortable with Rooney’s version of NFL royalty that he once told the big boss he was wearing his pants too high.
Once, Taylor came into Rooney’s office to announce that he was tired.
“Why, what are ya tired from?” Rooney said.
Ike gave his explanation. Rooney considered it. Then he said, “Well, why don’t you lie down on the couch there?”
Ike laid down. Zonked out immediately. After a while, Rooney had an appointment. He walked out, closed the door to his office, and told the secretaries not to bother Ike.
In a sport with so many phonies, so many opportunists and charlatans, so many seriously unreal people, Dan Rooney, for all his life, agitated for humility, diplomacy, sincerity, intelligence, innovation, simplicity and most of whatever else is still right about the game.
So yeah, this hurts. Really hurts.
And now I won’t worry about him any more on the sidelines at Latrobe. But boy I’ll worry about the rest of us.
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