A fond farewell to Mr. Dan Rooney (April 19, 2017)

AUBREY AND DAN ROONEY—A December 2012 photo of Steelers chairman Dan Rooney and New Pittsburgh Courier sports columnist Aubrey Bruce. (Photo courtesy Aubrey Bruce).

There had to be an eerie silence in the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton after the crack of dusk on April 13. Oh, and for those of you who are just returning from planet Mars, the reasoning for the deafening silence in the Hall was because Pittsburgh Steelers chairman and NFL icon Daniel Milton Rooney passed away. He was 84 years old. Mr. Rooney was a Pittsburgher through and through, attending high school at North Catholic, then graduating from Duquesne University.
This past Monday, April 17, a public viewing was held for Mr. Rooney at Heinz Field, followed by the funeral mass Tuesday, April 18 at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland.
The Steelers were purchased by his father Art Rooney Sr. in 1933 and quickly became the laughingstock of professional football as well as the world of sports. It took more than 40 years for the team to evolve into and produce a brand of excellence, creating and maintaining a standard that enabled the franchise to usher in the new millennium as a genuine sports dynasty. In 1969, Dan Rooney began managing the day-to-day operations of the team and selected Steelers Hall-of-Fame head coach Chuck Noll. Dan was appointed team president in 1975 and was officially given full operational control of the franchise. He did not reflect the typical sports owner whose prime motivation was to sell tickets and turn a profit. As his team grew into a sports powerhouse, he also became one of the driving forces that helped change the political, economic and social history of African Americans forever. The crowning example was the Rooney Rule.
The Rooney Rule was created in 2003 as a NFL policy that requires league teams to interview minority candidates for head coaching and senior football operations jobs. It is sometimes cited as an example of affirmative action, though there is no quota or preference given to minorities in the hiring of candidates. On January 21, 2007, the Steelers turned theory into reality and hired Mike Tomlin, the team’s first African American head coach. But what I’m about to say is far more important than just winning and losing football games and championships.
After being brought to America in the bottoms of slave ships, African Americans were emancipated after 246 years, but it took another 143 years for Blacks to be considered for the position of President of these United States. In 2008, Senators Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were involved in a hotly-contested political race competing for the Democratic Party nomination to run for president. Clinton was the odds-on favorite because she had been the first lady under President Bill Clinton. Mrs. Clinton was also the sitting senator from America’s fourth largest state (New York). Meanwhile, Obama was a little-known senator from the state of Illinois with less than five years of experience in the U.S. Senate. Against all public opinion, Dan Rooney endorsed Obama on April 14, 2008, tipping the scales even more for Obama after Rooney’s family friend, the late Senator Ted Kennedy, endorsed Obama earlier in the year. Dan had been a lifelong Republican but had become one of the sculptors of Democratic Party history. Two Irishmen became a principal part of the vision that helped to propel Obama into the White House.
I can almost guarantee that if Ted Kennedy and Dan Rooney had chosen to endorse Hillary Clinton in 2008, she would have become the first woman elected to serve as President of the United States in 2008, as opposed to losing a questionable election in November 2016 to the current president, Donald Trump. Dan Rooney was gracious to me for over three decades, long before affirmative action or the Rooney Rule existed. The Rooneys didn’t need the Rooney Rule. Dan Rooney created it for the sake of the future. Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II weren’t the first NFL ownership group to hire a Black head coach, but they were far more diligent and insightful at doing so. At the celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception, I asked Mr. Rooney to take a photo with me. About fifty photographers started clicking away. I guarantee you that less than a handful of them even knew who I was. History has proven that from early on in his life, Dan Rooney almost always peered into the future before making societal and life-changing decisions. His legacy will live on in the Steelers Great Hall, the NFL and most importantly, in the hallowed halls of American History.
(Aubrey Bruce can be reached at: abruce@newpittsburghcourier.com or 412-583-6741. Follow him on Twitter@ultrascribe.)
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