Designated Hitter: Dan Rooney was a legend

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The passing of Pittsburgh Steelers chairman Dan Rooney last week left a void in the National Football League, in sports and in American society.

Rooney, a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, had been at the forefront of every initiative that helped turn the NFL into the juggernaut it is today.

Television contracts, the "Rooney Rule" for interviewing and hiring minority coaches, expansion and the building of new stadia. Rooney had his fingerprints on all of those and more.

But for me, what was most poignant was the reaction of the men who played for the Steelers. They all remembered Rooney as not their owner, but as a guy who would share lunch with them in the cafeteria during the week, or the man who would let them take a nap in his office.

It reminded me of his father, Art Rooney. Because I have experienced the thoughtfulness of the Rooneys.

As many of you know, I grew up in Pittsburgh and I have been a Steelers fan since I could walk. In fact, I once made Hall of Famer Jim Brown laugh about that.

Brown spoke at Williams College a couple of years ago, and I got to go up and interview him. I told him that he used to make the six-year-old me cry on Sunday afternoons when he and the Cleveland Browns would run roughshod over what was then a really awful NFL franchise.

I was once excited about going to a Steelers-Saints game because of the halftime show, not because of those two woebegone franchises playing football.

As a precocious elementary school student, I wrote a couple of letters to Art Rooney. One time, I suggested a trade and I can't remember what the other one was for. The man fondly known as "The Chief" wrote back.

Once I won an NFL.com fantasy football league title and got a form letter from then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. Those times back home, I didn't get form letters from The Chief. I didn't even get letters that were dictated and typed.

Twice, letters from the Pittsburgh Steelers came to my mailbox, and the responses were hand written by Art Rooney himself.

He obviously guided son Dan properly, which is who so many were touched when Dan Rooney died.

It made me think of his father, and the acorn doesn't fall far from the tree.

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I'll bet you didn't know that Dan Rooney was some kind of athlete growing up in Pittsburgh.

He was a single-wing quarterback at Pittsburgh's North Catholic High School, and was good enough to play college football.

Rooney was, however, named second-team, All-City Catholic for his performance in his senior year. The first-team quarterback? None other than future Pro Football Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas, who had played at the now-defunct St. Justin's High School.

Imagine how the history of the NFL might have been different had Unitas been named second team to Rooney. Maybe Johnny U. doesn't go to the University of Louisville, and maybe doesn't get cut by the Steelers before signing with Baltimore and becoming a Colts legend.

On the other side of the argument, maybe Dan Rooney becomes a really good college football player and spends some time in the NFL. But he wouldn't have spent as much time learning the football business from his father.

What would the Steelers have become without Dan Rooney? How would the NFL be different? Would there be a New England Patriots team? Would there have been an American Football League, a merger and the movement of the Steelers, Browns and Colts to the new AFC?

It is something to think about.

Reach sports columnist Howard Herman at 413-496-6253 or @howardherman.


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