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Dan Rooney left indelible stamp on Pittsburgh Steelers and NFL

The house where Dan Rooney grew up and lived to his final days is just two stories high with a small porch, located on a modest block on Pittsburgh's north side not far from a fast food restaurant and some empty lots. You can almost see it from Heinz Field, and for years, Rooney would walk the cracked sidewalks down the hill to get to Steelers home games, one of the most influential people in NFL history remaining firmly a part of the city where he resided -- save for one very celebrated interruption -- all his life.

On Thursday, Rooney, the revered chairman of the Steelers, the deeply respected patriarch of the NFL and, not incidentally, the former United States Ambassador to Ireland, died at age 84, the team announced.

"It is a sad day for my family and me," Steelers president Art Rooney II said. "My father meant so much to all of us, and so much to so many past and present members of the Steelers organization. He gave his heart and soul to the Steelers, the National Football League and the City of Pittsburgh.

"We will celebrate his life and the many ways he left us in a better place."

Few people in NFL history had as much influence for as long a period of time as Rooney did -- he was a confidant of three commissioners, helped settle labor disputes and pushed the league toward diversity, among other things -- and few others did it all with such a common touch, remaining a part of the blue-collar city that shaped his life as surely as he shaped football.

"Few men have contributed as much to the National Football League as Dan Rooney," NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. "A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was one of the finest men in the history of our game and it was a privilege to work alongside him for so many years. Dan's dedication to the game, to the players and coaches, to his beloved Pittsburgh, and to Steelers fans everywhere was unparalleled. He was a role model and trusted colleague to commissioners since Bert Bell, countless NFL owners, and so many others in and out of the NFL. A voice of reason on a wide range of topics, including diversity and labor relations, Dan always had the league's best interests at heart. For my part, Dan's friendship and counsel were both inspiring and irreplaceable. My heart goes out to Patricia, Art, and the entire Rooney family on the loss of this extraordinary man."

Rooney will be remembered by fans for the extraordinary stamp he left on the game and so much more. But for those who knew him well or worked for him, their affection spawned from the fact that he still ate in the team cafeteria with the secretaries, went to each player in the locker room after every game to shake his hand, stopped by the press room and press box to chat with reporters -- even minutes before one of the Steelers' Super Bowls was about to kick off -- and once took a visiting reporter on a tour of his neighborhood, driving his own Buick. One six-week stretch in 2009 summed up the breadth of his experiences: The Steelers won their sixth Super Bowl in February and Rooney was nominated, on St. Patrick's Day, to be the United States Ambassador to Ireland.

"Dan Rooney was an extraordinary man of faith, conviction, reason and peace," former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said in a statement. He loved his family, his Steelers and his Pittsburgh. His values were of America, Ireland and his church. He was an inspiration to millions throughout America, and in many other lands. He was at home on mean streets, in locker rooms and chapels, with presidents, popes, poets and visionaries. Few have served so many so well.

"Dan was my mentor, role model, indispensable supporter and great friend during five decades," Tagliabue continued. "In the NFL, he is irreplaceable. Our thoughts and prayers are with Patricia and his exceptional family."

Rooney was born in 1932, fittingly the year before the Steelers' birth, and his entire life was threaded through the team founded by his father, Art "The Chief" Rooney. He was a ball boy as a teenager, before he began playing halfback at North Catholic High School. That was the position that handled the football in the single-wing offense, and Rooney was good enough at it to be selected second-team All-City Catholic League. The first-team selection was Johnny Unitas. Rooney used to laugh at that, but not at the fact that the Steelers cut Unitas before he went on to greatness with the Baltimore Colts. Rooney, meanwhile, went to Duquesne University and got a degree in accounting, signing players to contracts while he was still in college. He sold tickets and ad space in the game programs, learning every facet of the business in a jack-of-all-trades tutorial that various Rooneys still follow to this day.

By the time he was in his early 30s, Rooney was helping his father run the Steelers. They would attend league meetings together, always sitting next to the Mara family that still owns the New York Giants. And Rooney often said that one of their greatest accomplishments was never giving in to the wooing by other cities that wanted the Steelers to relocate in the 1950s and '60s, figuring out a way to make the franchise successful and viable, even as Pittsburgh went through dramatic economic cycles.

Much of the Steelers' success and viability can be traced to when Rooney took more of a hand in the day-to-day operations of the team. In 1969, he urged his father not to hire another of his friends and instead to install Chuck Noll as head coach -- the decision that forever altered the trajectory of the team. In 1987, he fired his own brother, Art. Jr., who was then in charge of player personnel, giving him other duties. He pushed his coaches and personnel people to consider drafting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, because he was still steamed that Pittsburgh's own Dan Marino had played elsewhere.

But he might have had an even greater impact on the league as a whole. Commissioners Pete Rozelle, Tagliabue and Goodell all came to rely on his insight. He was a mentor to Goodell, and when Goodell was selected by owners to be the commissioner, it was Rooney who went to his hotel room to tell him. Rooney often took the lead in labor negotiations with players, especially during the contentious contract negotiations of the 1980s and '90s, earning a reputation as a moderator. He once said in an interview that he never made any decision based on money. Even after he had ceded day-to-day control of the Steelers to his own son, Art II, Rooney came out publicly against an 18-game regular season when other owners were pushing for it during labor negotiations.

His philosophy might be best summed up in one story about a time when the NFL was considering ways to enhance their marketing opportunities. During the conversation, an NFL jersey -- with dozens of sponsorship decals attached, making it look like a NASCAR driver's jumpsuit -- arrived at the league office. Rooney had sent it to make a point.

"Our business is the game; we're not in this thing to make all the money in the world," Rooney told me about that ploy, for a story that ran in the New York Times. "I think some other teams still do things our way. But on this, we might be the last guy on the mountain."

Maybe they were. But Rooney told that story just days before the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl.

Rooney's most famous contribution, though, was his lobbying fellow owners to support a rule that required teams to interview minority candidates for coaching jobs, a critical step that increased the diversity of the league. The rule was actually formulated by the league office, but Tagliabue knew there were few owners who could coalesce support for it. He asked Rooney to take the lead and the rule has come to be known as the Rooney Rule. Rooney is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, along with his father, one of only two father-son pairs to be so honored (the other: Tim and Wellington Mara of the Giants). The Rooneys are considered such a critical element of the NFL that, in 2008, when outsiders wanted to buy a controlling interest in the franchise, the league made it clear that other owners would not approve a sale that took the team from the Rooneys. Instead, Dan and Art II cobbled together a group of minority investors that allowed them to keep the team.

A few months later, Rooney, a lifelong supporter of Irish causes, received a reward for his early endorsement of a young senator from Chicago, Barack Obama. The Rooneys were not likely the wealthiest family in Pittsburgh, but they were considered powerful. Rooney said at the time that he was inspired in part by his own grandchildren's enthusiasm for Obama, although the endorsement angered some Steelers fans, who were used to the Rooneys keeping their politics private.

Still, when Rooney and his wife, Patricia, moved to Dublin -- and began a three-year stint that included visits to each of the 32 counties in Ireland, a first for a U.S. ambassador -- Rooney remained attached to the team. A system was set up so he could watch Steelers games at his residence there, and while he missed training camps for the first time in his life, he frequently took grueling trips home to see the team on Sundays. He added a football field to the grand ambassador's residence in Dublin and hosted July 4th flag football games. He spoke to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regularly, including one time when he took a call from her while chatting in the press box just before kickoff for a Steelers game. Even when he was away, he spoke daily to his son, Art II, about the team and regularly to Goodell.

But if Rooney's accomplishments were sweeping in scope, his manner could be summed up in his home. He never allowed his biography to be printed in the team's media guide, he went to Mass every day, he drove himself to work and when the Steelers went to the Super Bowl, so did every team employee, including the long-time workers in the cafeteria. Only a few years ago, he invited me to a dinner with his wife at a small, family-owned Italian spot. Located next to a hospital and perched up a few cement steps from the street, the restaurant had pictures of the old Forbes Field and Steelers players -- and his father, Art -- on the wall. After dinner, he drove us through the neighborhood in a guided tour, pointing out his home and the local park, the view of downtown and the stadium.

When I first showed up to write about his team, he invited me to sit with them at lunch. "I'm Dan," he introduced himself. And then he told me the history of the steel mills that used to operate on the site of the Steelers' training facility and of the railroad that still runs behind it. "If you need me," he said when lunch was over, "I'm down the hall." The hall was lined with Super Bowl trophies.

Rooney's lone indulgence, it seemed, was his small private plane. Until very late in his life, he flew it himself to owners' meetings and to the Steelers' training camp in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, much to the dismay of family members who recalled the time the landing gear would not come down.

Rooney often said that it was his father who taught him to value people. Bill Nunn, who opened the pipeline to black college players when he began scouting for the Steelers in the 1960s, once said that Rooney did not see color.

"In those days, growing up on the North Side, we didn't think about your skin color or your accent or what church you went to," Rooney wrote in his memoir, "Dan Rooney: My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL." "What mattered was that you lived up to your word, pulled your own weight and looked out for your friends."

Rooney never forgot that ethos. He brought it to the Steelers and the NFL, helping to propel their immense wealth and popularity, all that way from that small house up the hill.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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