Bill Cowher and Dan Rooney congratulate each other after defeating the Steelers beat Washington in the final game at Three Rivers Stadium on Dec. 16, 2000.
By Ray Fittipaldo / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Win or lose, home or away, Steelers players could always count on one thing after a game. Dan Rooney went to every stall in the locker room, shook hands with every player and had a few words of encouragement for them.
It didn’t matter if the Steelers played at Heinz Field, just a short walk from Rooney’s home on the North Side, or in any of the NFL’s other cities. It didn’t matter if the Steelers lost by three touchdowns or had just won the Super Bowl. It didn’t matter if you were the star quarterback or the 53rd man on the roster.
If you played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, you were getting a handshake after the game.
“You felt the relationship,” said former offensive lineman Alan Faneca. “There would be the ‘Congratulations’ or ‘We’ll get them the next time.’ But it wasn’t just in passing. It was heartfelt. There was definitely a connection between the Rooneys and the players.
“I went on to play for other teams. You talk other guys around the league, and they really don’t understand. That creates a bond between the management and the players. That bond is a big part of why the Steelers have been so good. And that bond is represented in so many other levels in the organization.”
Shaking hands with his players after every game is a tradition Dan Rooney carried on after his father, team founder Art Rooney, passed away in 1987. The Chief, as he was affectionately called by his players, started the franchise in 1933 and began the family-oriented feelings in the organization.
“Dan continued what his father did,” said former cornerback and Pro Football Hall of Famer Mel Blount. “The Chief would be in the locker room. He’d be offering you cigars. He’d be on the sidelines at practice.
“Dan was the same way. Within the last year I’d come to practice and Dan would be there on the sidelines talking to players. Or he’d be in the cafeteria eating at the same table with the players and talking.”
And it’s a tradition Art Rooney II, Dan’s son and the current team president, will continue in the future after Dan passed away Thursday at the age of 84. Art Rooney II often was right behind his father in the locker room in recent years providing that same personal touch his grandfather and father did.
But it’s not just handshakes after games that endear the Rooney family to their players. Dan Rooney, until he became ill this year, was a constant presence in the Steelers offices in the South Side training facility named in his honor.
Handshakes after games wouldn’t mean nearly the same if they didn’t see Rooney every other day during the week.
“The thing about Dan was the door to his office was always open,” said former safety Mike Wagner, who, like Blount, won four Super Bowls in six seasons from 1974-79. “You could always stop in to say hello. Or if you had an issue he would always listen. Anytime you’re in a business environment and the person at the top of the organization has an open door policy, that sets the tone.”
And that bond Dan Rooney developed with his players almost never fractured. Faneca left the Steelers after a contentious contract dispute in 2007 and played out his final three NFL seasons with the Jets and Cardinals.
Last summer, Faneca came back to the Steelers to serve as a coaching intern. He was welcomed with open arms.
“It was amazing,” Faneca said. “The first day I was back in Latrobe last summer I was making rounds and trying to see people I hadn’t seen in a while. Mr. Rooney was one of the last people I saw. The reason was he was trying track me down and was around the campus looking for me. We finally found each other. That was a special relationship.”
Players from every era have similar stories. It’s not uncommon for any former Steelers to stop by the UPMC Rooney Complex in-season or out of season for lunch or to say hello. Blount often brings children from his youth home in Claysville to visit with coaches and players and to watch practice. Wagner will stop by from time to time with neighborhood children or business associates.
“Any of us can go down there anytime,” Wagner said. “It’s that open door policy. Recently I had some workers come in from the Carolinas, and I took them down there for lunch at the facility. I was showing them around, showing them the Super Bowl trophies, the view of the practice fields from the offices. Art II was there, and he came over and talked with us.
“Just because you’re not an active player anymore doesn’t mean anything. We’re always welcome there. They make it easy on us. That’s all because of Dan. He was a special guy.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @rayfitt1.
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