Dan Rooney / A new responsibility

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This is part of "Remembering Art Rooney Sr.: A Father's Heirlooms Still Cherished." Click on headline to see complete story.

Twenty-five years to the day of his father's passing, Dan Rooney is still in charge at 81 years old. He flies a small plane to and from Steelers training camp in Latrobe with a professional pilot by his side, occasionally walking the sidelines at practice with his pants held up by suspenders.

Art II has been the team's president since 2003, but Dan's role as franchise leader is not ceremonial. While he spent the past three years as the United States' ambassador to Ireland, he is again a daily presence with his franchise.

The Steelers have turned Pittsburgh into Sixburgh under Dan's direction, the firstborn son making good on the faith of his father. With all the success and the trappings of the football life he began working toward as a 14-year-old, it's no wonder that Dan can't remember his first pick from that conflicted family draft back in 1988.

He can, however, remember why he left the room.

"I did not like that process," Dan says. "I just thought it was a distasteful thing."

To Dan, the values his father passed down to him and his brothers -- and the ownership of their individual destinies -- were what held meaning.

That grooming for greatness happened on North Lincoln Avenue, at the house Art Sr. and Kathleen McNulty Rooney bought for $5,000 in 1939 in a neighborhood known for having the city's first "millionaires' row." It had 12 rooms, high ceilings, and a large backyard fit for a fast-growing clan.

When the brothers met for the draft, it was undetermined what would happen to the house. They inherited an equal share of it and talked about turning it into a family office.

But soon, Dan Rooney would decide to buy the family's most-prized heirloom. He had raised his nine children in Mt. Lebanon, and now it was time to come home. Dan purchased his brothers' shares and returned to the house on North Lincoln, despite the neighborhood having deteriorated around it.

He renovated the place, building a two-story extension with a garage to the east. He didn't plan it this way, but today, the Rooney home has a pristine, uninterrupted view of Heinz Field emerging from the ground a few blocks away, a constant reminder of the empire built by the son of a North Side saloon owner.

• • •

When Dan Rooney got his first look at the family home, he was 7 years old, and it felt like a real-life castle.

The boys would spray down the grass in the back yard until it became muddy enough to practice their own brand of trench warfare. In the winters, Art Sr. would show his penchant for creative gaming by putting boards around the blacktop and hosing it down until it froze over for bruising hockey battles.

House and team
(Click image for larger version)

Dan always acted like a second father to his younger brothers, and his patriarchal instincts were often called upon when his father was out of town traveling to race tracks. Dan helped run the household with his mother Kathleen (below with Art Rooney Sr.)

His place in the family line, devotion to his duties as the oldest son and the experience of being around a pro football team -- a journey he began as a teenager -- made him a natural to succeed his father in running the Steelers. Dan also decided to buy the family's North Side home.

Art Sr. set the rules, but he was not always there to enforce them, venturing often to the race tracks on the East Coast to develop his natural eye for picking a winner. That left Dan as the man of the house, a role he was happy to take on for his mother, who was the boys' emotional go-to and their greatest ally in dealing with their father.

"She was marvelous," Dan says. "I was with her a lot because I was the oldest."

When his younger brothers would act up, Dan would use physical force if needed to reset the boundaries.

"Dan was like your second father, beating the crap out of you all the time," John says, laughing. "Dan might not have been as lenient as the old man."

Dan handled the serious stuff, too, making sure that the brothers said their rosaries each night.

Still, there was no confusion about who was boss. Art Sr. may have been on the road, but he had this uncanny way of being there in spirit.

"And it didn't seem with much effort," Pat says. "He could instill his presence on you. He didn't have to give you sermons."

Art Sr. and Dan didn't have to have a big talk for the boy to see his future. As a teenager, he started working at Steelers training camp every summer, picking up sweaty jockstraps and making sure each one was clean and accounted for. Even performing such menial tasks, he understood that he eventually would take over for his father, and that knowledge pushed him.

Before Dan had started playing high school football in 1946, the Pittsburgh Press wrote a story with the headline "North Catholic Halfback Problems Are Over -- Dan Rooney is coming." Dan was ribbed by his teammates, but he did become a star player.

The surprising thing was that Art Sr., a man who defined himself by his love of sporting, attended only three of Dan's games in four years.

"He didn't think it was necessary to be showing his kids football," Dan says. "He felt there were more important things to do."

When Pat and John were old enough to play at North Catholic, it was Dan who went to one of their practices to see how they were doing. Dan was in college at Duquesne University and logging lots of hours with the Steelers, but he made time to approach his old coach and tell him to give the boys a shot.

Pat and John, flummoxed freshmen, looked at Dan and said they didn't have helmets that fit. Dan found them two, ordered them to hit the field, and that was the last time the twins played any organized football.


J. Brady McCollough: bmccollough@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @BradyMcCollough. First Published August 25, 2013 4:00 AM


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