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Rooney was NFL royalty, and just an ordinary guy

David M. Shribman is the executive editor of The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a former Washington correspondent for The New York Times.

On a summer evening — any summer evening, even when the Pittsburgh breezes were kicking up a storm — he would walk a few blocks over to the park where he played as a kid, set himself down on a chair and talk about nothing in particular with Gus Kalaris. He and Gus grew up there on the North Side, fate sending Dan Rooney to the ownership of the Steelers and Kalaris to the ice ball truck his father built 83 years ago.

There they were, two men steeped in their family businesses, the man who ran one of the most storied NFL teams licking a lime ice ball and his friend shaving giant blocks of ice on the back of a trailer. Gus would talk about the old days, and Dan, the signature figure of Pittsburgh, would affix his signature to folded-up popcorn boxes for the youngsters in perhaps the most racially integrated spot in town. Later, when Dan would develop a posture reminiscent of a paper clip, he’d be driven over to Gus’ spot, down there beside the tennis courts, and sit in the back seat, propped up by pillows, telling lore and lies. After awhile, no one could tell the difference.

It was perhaps the quintessential Pittsburgh scene, two men no longer tall — octogenarians with oval faces — sharing tall tales as dusk fell, one of them a millionaire sportsman who was decidedly not (and here comes a phrase from Gus and Dan’s youth) a sport. Dan Rooney, who died on Thursday at 84, dressed as if he shopped at Goodwill, but his life was an expression of good will. Everybody, his barber and his blocking tackles, said so. Ike Taylor, a onetime Steelers cornerback born poor on the west bank of the Mississippi, had Dan Rooney, born to Pittsburgh royalty on the north bank of the Allegheny, on speed dial. If only he could extend those big fingers to press that button now.

Rooney himself left fingerprints all over the game, and all over American life. He pressed for the AFL-NFL merger that brought peace to pro football and the Super Bowl to iconic cultural status. He pushed football (and indeed all of pro sports) to hire black coaches through a measure that became known as the Rooney rule. But when pro football owners became highfliers, he remained grounded.

Dan knew — cultivated, mentored — his players, from flashy quarterbacks to members of the special teams, which perhaps is why the Steelers themselves are known, in Pittsburgh and beyond, as a special team. Dan could be tough; his sons will tell you so. He was nostalgic but not sentimental; ask any 31-year-old fading star released a year or two earlier than he expected. But he had an eye for talent (drafting Ben Roethlisberger, the team’s redoubtable quarterback, for example) and an eye for destiny (he was an early endorser of Barack Obama).

He and Obama grew close, and eventually the man elected president of the United States in 2008 asked the man appointed president of the Steelers in 1975 to be the nation’s ambassador to Ireland. This was proof that the phrase “the natural” doesn’t apply only to baseball and Bernard Malamud. In Dublin, Rooney soon became a tourist attraction himself. One spring, a delegation of grandees from the Pittsburgh-area Robert Morris University, which has a Rooney International Scholar program, was invited to Deerfield Residence, the ambassador’s home in Phoenix Park. The visitors put on crisp shirts and belted dresses. Rooney came to the door in a Steelers jersey. “We all felt silly,” said Jay Carson, a university senior vice president. “Hell, we all owned Steelers jerseys.”

Then there was the time that some of the administrators at St. Vincent College, 40 miles southeast of Pittsburgh and for more than half a century host to the Steelers’ training camp, did some elementary math: Hundreds of cars with Steelers decals multiplied by, say, $3 for parking multiplied by 29 days might equal a decent sum for a tiny Roman Catholic college not exactly possessed of the endowment of Harvard. A great idea, everybody agreed, but Rooney vetoed it. These were people who couldn’t afford tickets to a Steelers game. He wasn’t going to allow them to be charged to park to sit in the hot sun and watch fumble-recovery drills.

Dan Rooney was an ordinary guy in a field where there were no ordinary guys on the field. “He’d come in for a haircut and he wouldn’t talk about the Steelers,” said Bryan Pusateri, his barber. “He only wanted to talk about my daughters.”

Years ago, a young businessman and his wife popped into St. Peter Parish on the North Side and saw Rooney in a Steelers jersey sitting in the pews. When Mass ended, Rooney introduced himself. “That was who he was,” said Morgan O’Brien, today the head of Peoples Natural Gas. “He felt he was in charge of welcoming you to the church.”

That was who he was — and on eight Sundays a year, the cathedral he welcomed you to was Heinz Field. Dan Rooney of the Steelers: an American original, and a lime ice ball man.

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