A young reporter rummaged through complex notes on NFL litigation, stadium financing, and revenue sharing. He scratched his head. It was his first NFL owners meeting in the spring of 1988. With his brow buried, an unexpected, directly overhead, booming voice filled the Phoenix Arizona Biltmore Hotel ballroom.
"Hey there young man!" Art Rooney Sr. bellowed. "Got it figured out?"
It was just me. It was just him. He already knew.
"Hey, it’s not that tough if you get some help," Rooney insisted.
He whisked me by the hand into the Biltmore lobby. And he began a gathering dozens of his peers in a style that only Art Rooney Sr., could.
"Hey, Art Modell, I want you to come and meet someone!" he instructed. "Hey Ralph Wilson, you, too! Hey Lamar Hunt, come over here!"
By the time Art Rooney Sr., was done, I had met half of the NFL ownership and gained valuable insight.
A few years later, in the same Biltmore room, more seasoned now, my wife and two toddler sons and I attended a reception at another NFL owners meeting. We were dancing in a circle to fun music.
Dan Rooney walked right into the middle of us.
"Are these your sons?" he asked. He didn’t wait for an answer.
"Well of course they are! They look just like you! Let me join in."
And dance he did.
* * *
The father was like the son, and the son was like the father: NFL patriarchs of different eras, and each essential. Dan Rooney died on Thursday, and his funeral service was Tuesday morning. There is no doubt that nearly every person in that cathedral had some sort of dancing tale, some sort of encounter with this measured man of iron, so wise and sincere.
He grew up on the North Side of Pittsburgh and he lived a Pittsburgh life, one where the truth was his guide and where consensus building was his art. He loved the Steelers. He helped give their fans six Super Bowl championships, eight AFC championships, and 15 divisional championships. He helped create an enduring black-and-gold culture.
He served Pete Rozelle, and Paul Tagliabue, and Roger Goodell. He was always only a phone call away for those commissioners and, no question, his phone incessantly rang. This trio of commissioners knew that Dan Rooney was a problem solver, a rational man. He could get men at odds to dance in the same room. To connect and focus on common causes.
Other owners relied upon him. Coaches sought his counsel. Players did, too.
But you did not have to be a part of the NFL for Dan Rooney to dance with you. There are countless stories on the streets of Pittsburgh this morning and across the world where this rings true.
His service as Ambassador to Ireland from 2009 to 2012 was one more testament to his global reach.
His mandatory plan that African-Americans be included in the head coach/general manager hiring process — the Rooney Rule — results in great affection today for Rooney in the African-American community and beyond. This league had long been and, in some circles, still is considered racist at its core led by a billionaire group of white men who embody the root definition of an "old boy’s network."
Dan Rooney helped to crack that glass, enlighten his peers, create more equal opportunity. Dan Rooney always believed the best man should get a job. He simply never believed that skin color should keep him from being considered. Some of his NFL peers, though, did. Rooney danced among them, cajoled them to effect permanent change.
His death at age 84 marks the continued loss of NFL owners from his era. His death is a reminder to remaining NFL owners of their mortality. We have seen NFL ownership in recent years jump in, hurriedly get more involved, make bolder moves in hopes of winning Super Bowls right now. Rooney’s death increases that sensation among them that time is ticking. They want to savor what Dan Rooney did, the winning, the championships, the dancing. All of them long for it. Rooney’s death will push some of them harder, faster. His death stings them all.
Daniel Milton Rooney entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000.
I last saw him on Jan. 8. It was the Miami vs. Pittsburgh playoff game in his stadium, Heinz Field. He walked up, thrust his hand forward and said, "You know, I’ll always remember you!"
Not nearly as much as we will remember him. And the incredible, healing way he could dance.