Dan Rooney was a favorite of NFL players, owners alike
April 18, 2017 5:00 AM
Dan Rooney borrows a camera from a photographer at training camp at Saint Vincent College in 2012.
By Craig Meyer / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
There’s a story Tunch Ilkin likes to tell whenever he thinks about Dan Rooney, something he has been doing almost constantly over the past five days.
While in Dallas in 2011, two days before the Steelers’ Super Bowl matchup against the Green Bay Packers in nearby Arlington, Texas, he was trudging through a snowstorm when he saw Rooney, the patriarch of the Steelers’ ownership family, and his wife walking arm-in-arm in the distance, sheltered by nothing more than a shawl. Out of concern, Ilkin asked Rooney, then 78 years old, what he was doing out in such inclement weather.
“‘Oh, we’re just coming back from Mass,’ ” Ilkin recalled Rooney telling him, “like it was the most natural thing to say.”
In the days following his death at age 84 last Thursday, such tales of Rooney’s humility and grace have been omnipresent. He was a man of endearing contradictions, an everyman who just happened to preside over one of the most powerful brands in American sports.
That same contrast allowed him to strike a delicate and hard-to-achieve balance in his professional life. He was, simultaneously, an ally and friend to legions of Steelers players such as Ilkin while remaining a well-respected and reliable force among fellow NFL owners. It’s an equilibrium that stands as perhaps one of the most impressive accomplishments of a decorated life, one trait of many that made him such a revered figure for so many years.
When those two sides of his life were tested, namely during labor disputes, Rooney was a peacemaker, a level-headed presence during crucial and understandably contentious moments. He played a vital role in helping settle work stoppages in 1982 and 1987. That work was made possible in part because of his close and trusting relationship with NFLPA executive director Gene Upshaw, but also because of the high level of respect he had from NFL players and union representatives, a designation few NFL owners had.
“He was a leader,” Ilkin said. “Because he was a humble leader and a humble man, I think people looked up to him and respected his wisdom. He was kind of the moderate voice. He was the voice of reason. The crazy ‘We have to break the union’ — that wasn’t him. I don’t remember what his words were exactly, but it was basically ‘Hey, remember — we’re all going to get back together and work together again.’ Some ownership did not act that way. At some point, this thing is going to end and we’re going to be back and we’re going to be a league again. That’s what made him such a unique man and such a unique owner. That’s why he was beloved.”
That ability to connect with the other side was evident even away from the negotiating table, a quality embodied by even the smallest gestures. In 1987, as the Steelers were conducting their training camp in Johnstown, Ilkin and his teammates were scrambling to find a place to hold informal practices as they were on strike. When Rooney heard about that, he reached out to Ilkin, the Steelers’ NFLPA player representative from 1985-93, and told him there was a key on his secretary’s desk that would open the gate to the team’s practice field adjacent to Three Rivers Stadium.
“You didn’t get it from me,” Rooney told him.
Such magnanimous acts went far beyond labor stoppages. When studying Rooney’s life and his relationship with Steelers players, they were a defining characteristic.
He would often ask players about their family, about their marriage and their children. If a player had an incentive clause in his contract that guaranteed a certain amount of money for playing, say, 50 percent of snaps, Rooney was known for giving players that money even if they fell just short of the mark.
After finding out his star running back’s parents attended every game, Jerome Bettis recalled Rooney telling him he would give them two of his seats at Three Rivers Stadium, closer to the Steelers’ bench. Following the 1987 strike, Ilkin approached Rooney, concerned about the fate of some of his teammates who were likely to be cut given the strong showing by some of the replacement players. Rooney, in turn, chose to pay each released player for two games, or one-eighth of the season.
“I was not anti-player,” Rooney said in a 2000 interview of his ability to connect with players during strife. “So the players gained a little bit of confidence in me and were able to say things to me. I was able to say things that might not have been said by other people.”
Rooney was one of the most active figures in NFL operations, serving on the board of directors for the NFL trust fund, scheduling committee, management council executive committee, player/club operations committee and the Hall of Fame committee, among others. The work he did in helping guide the Steelers through the transformation from laughingstock to model franchise, one that became a model of almost unparalleled consistency, earned him immeasurable respect.
The same benevolent actions that made him a favorite with players also helped him earn respect among owners. In his last in-person interaction with Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Rooney visited the Cowboys’ locker room following a gut-wrenching 35-30 Steelers loss last November at Heinz Field to congratulate them, a moment Jones fondly recalled in a statement released following Rooney’s death.
“He shaped the league with instincts, wisdom and a soft-spoken velvet touch,” Jones said. “He was a steward and a guardian for the growth and popularity of the NFL, because he loved the game so much.”
To report inappropriate comments, abuse and/or repeat offenders, please send an email to
firstname.lastname@example.org and include a link to the article and a copy of the comment. Your report will be reviewed in a timely manner.