Dan Rooney’s priorities were always clear. Family. Football. Faith. Ireland.
It’s the order they came in for the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers president and chairman, however, that occasionally became blurry. Often in the best way possible.
The evidence could be found in the pews at St. Paul’s Cathedral on Tuesday, a cross section of a singular life that stretched far beyond his native city, yet never seemed to stray from its roots.
The 90-minute funeral celebrating Rooney, who died at 84 last Thursday , offered a glimpse into a man who turned a moribund franchise into a dynasty; helped refine the vision of the modern NFL; and attempted to ease regional tensions as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. All the while remaining the guy from Pittsburgh’s North Side neighborhood simply known as “Dan.”
“He was a Pittsburgher,” Cardinal Donald Wuerl said. “He was the best of us.”
To the right in the massive sanctuary sat hundreds of current and ex-players — from Hall of Famers Joe Greene and Franco Harris to current stars Ben Roethlisberger and Antonio Brown to alums whose careers were far more modest — that Rooney treated as surrogate sons and grandsons. In the middle sat NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, men who relied heavily on Rooney’s counsel. Down in front sat good friend and former President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, there to pay tribute to Rooney’s legacy and offer comfort to his wife Patricia, son Art II and the rest of what is considered the city’s first family.
Scattered throughout were friends, well-wishers and strangers just off the street who filled the crowded sanctuary to say goodbye.
“He never lost the common man touch,” Wuerl said.
Maybe because Rooney never considered himself anything else, not even as he oversaw the Steelers’ transformation from also-rans to champions. Not even as he joined so many of his players in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000. Not even as he became the first U.S. ambassador to visit all 32 counties in Ireland, intent on creating unity out of division. Not even as his phone buzzed with calls from power brokers who relied on his guidance in trying times.
When Rooney, who made sure morning mass was part of his daily schedule, would check in with Wuerl during his time in Ireland, Wuerl would answer the phone and say “Hello Mr. Ambassador.” To which Rooney would reply “it’s Dan.”
No formalities. That simply wasn’t Rooney’s style. Grandstanding wasn’t his thing. When there was a project to be done, be it a new television contract between the NFL and its broadcast partners, building Heinz Field to replace Three Rivers Stadium, hashing out a player contract or starting a scholarship foundation, Rooney preferred to work quietly and behind the scenes.
“You can get anything done if you don’t care who gets the credit,” Wuerl said, repeating one of Rooney’s favorite maxims.
When there was difficult work to be done, Rooney made sure he was the first to get his hands dirty, even if the timing was unfortunate. When Patricia went into labor with their daughter Joan in the winter of 1968, Rooney dropped off his wife at the hospital, then headed to the Steelers’ offices to fire coach Bill Austin.
“Thankfully, that was the last time he had to fire a coach,” Art Rooney II, now the team’s president, said with a laugh.
Rooney hand-picked Austin’s successor, Chuck Noll. And over the next decade the team that couldn’t win anything won everything. The Steelers captured four Super Bowls during a six-season stretch from 1974-1979, with Rooney working in the background. Meanwhile, the men who played for him became legends, men Rooney made it a point to get to know on a personal level regardless of profile, talent, stature or background.
The proof came in one member of the organization who served as a pallbearer.
Ike Taylor grew up in Louisiana, he never stepped foot in Pittsburgh until the team selected him in the fourth round of the 2003 draft. That didn’t stop Taylor from developing a deep relationship with the man he called “Pops.”
Their friendship stood as a symbol for Rooney’s uncanny ability to see across boundaries and generations. And it’s what made Art II’s choice of the final thought in honor of a man who meant so many different things to so many different people so fitting.
“Blessed are the peacemakers,” Art II said while reading the seventh beatitude, “for they shall be called the children of God.”