In the nearly half century that Dan Rooney and his four brothers have owned the Palm Beach Kennel Club, he maintained a residence in the area, but rarely came down, his nephew said.
“The Steelers were really his life,” Patrick Rooney Jr., chief executive officer of the Kennel Club, said Thursday afternoon.
Dan Rooney, owner of the professional football team that put Pittsburgh on the sports map, garnering six Super Bowl trophies in three decades, died Thursday at 84 in Pittsburgh.
“Few men have contributed as much to the National Football League as Dan Rooney,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
“All of us at Palm Beach Kennel Club are saddened to learn of the passing of track co-owner Dan Rooney…Our thoughts and prayers go out to Dan’s family and many friends,” said a statement released by the Kennel Club Thursday night.
Rooney’s health had been poor the last three years and grew worse in the last few months, said his nephew, who left the Florida House of Representatives in November. Dan Rooney also was the uncle of Pat Jr.’s brother, U.S. Rep. Tom Rooney, R-Okeechobee.
Dan Rooney was born in 1932, the year his father, Art “The Chief” Rooney, founded the Pittsburgh Steelers franchise — and, by coincidence, the year the Kennel Club was opened by other owners. Dan, the oldest of five Rooney sons, was a Steelers ballboy as a young teenager and played halfback in Catholic high school. He already was signing players to contracts as he pursued his accounting degree at the city’s Duquesne University.
Later, he sold Steelers tickets and program ads even as the Steelers foundered in the 1950s and 1960s, with the Rooney family fending off suitors who wanted to move them out of Pittsburgh.
“My grandfather (Art) was a great sportsman, but he hired a lot of his friends to do some of the front office work,” Pat Jr. said. “If you look at our work from the 1930s to 1972, it reflected that.”
In the early 1970s, Dan Rooney took over team operations from his father, who would die at 87 in August 1988. Soon after, Dan Rooney hired Chuck Noll as head coach, and the Steelers moved into the NFL’s spotlight.
Later, one of the few that got away from Dan Rooney was Pittsburgh local Dan Marino.
“Mr. Rooney meant so much to the city of Pittsburgh & NFL,” the Miami Dolphins Hall of Fame quarterback said Thursday in a tweet. “Thank you for all that u have done. I’m honored to have called you my friend. #RIP.”
Dan Rooney eventually would turn over Steelers team operations to his son Art II, and in 2009, began a three-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Ireland.
Late in life, as he always had done, he still went to Mass daily and drove himself to work.
“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 and his father join the New York Giants’ Tim and Wellington Mara as the only father-son combination in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In 1970, Art Rooney bought the kennel club, across from Palm Beach International Airport west of West Palm Beach. It had gone through three owners in its first four decades. In recent years, competition from casinos and the state lottery have cut into the Kennel Club’s success.
Art Rooney eventually turned over the kennel club to his five sons, including Dan and Patrick Sr., who still lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Pat Jr. said Thursday. Pat Jr. said he took his father’s share of the operations in 2007 and that Dan turned over most of his Kennel Club responsibilities about four years ago.
“Unlike my other uncles, who are frequent ‘customers’ over at the track, my uncle Dan rarely came over there,” he said.
The funeral is set for Tuesday in Pittsburgh.
This story was supplemented with material from NFL.com.