Rooney book virtual 'history' of the NFL

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About 50 years ago, when NFL owners sat with members of the newly formed players' union to approve a second pair of shoes for each player and agree to pay them for preseason games, the Steelers were represented by a 24-year-old executive who had football in his blood.

That man, Dan Rooney, is the only official from that meeting who is still around.

It is moments such as these, from the league's formative days, that Rooney, the Steelers chairman and son of the founder, wanted to preserve for posterity in an autobiography published in concert with the team's 75th season.

"I wanted this to be a history book," Rooney said yesterday at a news conference. "In some ways, I feel I'm the last man standing, the last of the first generation who knew the founders of the league and set it on its course to become America's game.

"Obviously, I wasn't around in 1920 when the NFL was formed, but I knew the people who were."

The book -- "Dan Rooney, My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL" -- will be available in stores Monday, the day the Steelers will honor their 75th anniversary all-time team as part of their game against the Baltimore Ravens.

It's not a tell-all book or some juicy expose -- "So many stories could have been put in," he said -- but it does contain nuggets and insights from a man who was just a few weeks shy of his first birthday when his father bought an NFL franchise for $2,500 in 1933.

The oldest of five sons of Kathleen and Arthur Joseph Rooney, he was the first Rooney born in a hospital and the first grandson in an extended family. One revelation he shares is that, because his father was away on business so much, it was his mother who picked out the house on North Lincoln Avenue on the North Side and put down $500 of her own money on the $5,000 purchase.

With the Steelers, he started out as a water boy, floor sweeper, helmet painter, equipment manager and general go-fer. By the time he was 19, he was handling payroll and negotiating player contracts.

In one example of how influential he was in helping to shape the modern NFL, Rooney tells of how owners were divided in 1961 on how to split up TV revenues. Dan Reeves of the Los Angeles Rams believed the bigger markets should get a bigger share, but Rooney insisted on an even split for markets such as Pittsburgh -- or else.

"When you come to Pittsburgh to play, we won't put you on [TV]. The game won't go back to Los Angeles," Rooney said.

"You won't get any money," Reeves replied.

"Then neither will you. You won't get a dime, and you've got more to lose," Rooney said.

He was 28 at the time, and he won the argument.

Rooney acknowledges that he was different from his father, who fancied fine cigars, fast racehorses and baseball. Dan Rooney joked that he smoked only one cigar in his life, and he devoted his full attention to the Steelers and the NFL.

He and his father disagreed on things such as the release of John Unitas and the interview process when coach Bill Austin was hired. But it was "The Chief" who counseled his son to consider switching the Steelers from the old NFL to the AFC during the thorny merger with the American Football League.

"My father was a special person. He contributed to this team in more ways than people know," Rooney said.

He chuckled when he added, "He used to always say, 'Do it your way, but don't make any mistakes.' "

Rooney officially became president of the Steelers in 1975, but he actually ran the team for 10 years before that. He was instrumental in the hiring of Chuck Noll, which he described as the best decision the Steelers ever made. But when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000, Rooney was presented by Joe Greene.

"I always believed Joe Greene represented the spirit of the Steelers better than any other player," Rooney said.

The book gets into Rooney's core beliefs of family, faith and football.

One particularly insightful anecdote involves a sit-in protest by Franco Harris when the Ku Klux Klan staged a rally in Pittsburgh in 1997. Harris' Italian mother spent time in a Nazi prison camp in World War II, and he was incensed that the Klan had a rally here.

Rooney went to talk with him and suggested that he take part in a counterdemonstration instead, which Harris ultimately decided to do.

Rooney was instrumental in the selection of NFL commissioners from Pete Rozelle to Paul Tagliabue and Roger Goodell.

Goodell wrote the preface to the book, calling Rooney "the conscience of the league." But that didn't stop the commissioner from fining Rooney after he criticized the officiating in a game against the Falcons last season.

The book was written with Andrew E. Masich and David F. Halaas of the Heinz History Center.


Robert Dvorchak can be reached at bdvorchak@post-gazette.com .


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