Pat Rooney, Former Steelers Minority Owner, Passes Away at Age 84

Patrick J. Rooney, Pat Rooney, Pat Rooney brother of Dan, Pat Rooney obituary

Pat Rooney stands in front of a portrait of his father Art Rooney, Sr. Photo Credit: Richard Garulich, The Palm Beach Post

Patrick J. Rooney, former minority owner and son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. has passed away at the age of 84. Of all of the Rooney brothers, Pat Rooney kept the lowest profile when it came to his association with the Steelers.

Dan Rooney of course ran the team for over 50 years, guiding it from NFL laughing stock to one of the most successful pro sports franchises in history. Dan’s decisions continue to shape the Steelers today. Art Rooney, Jr. ran the scouting department and, along with Bill Nunn and Dick Haley, oversaw some of the greatest drafts in league history.

Tim Rooney never held a formal role with the franchise, yet he was the one who penned the letter to “The Chief” imploring him to force head coach Walt Kiesling to keep Johnny Unitas. (The Chief balled the letter up and threw it in the trash, explaining to his sons, “There can only be one boss.”) John Rooney, Pat’s twin, never held a role with the team either, but he helped keep the Steelers in Rooney hands when Stanley Druckenmiller tried to buy the team in 2008.

But, as Pat Rooney explained to Jim O’Brien in his 2002 book The Chief, maintained few ties to the Steelers:

The last connection I had with the Steelers’ front office, aside from my brother Dan, was Mary Regan, who had been my dad’s secretary all those years. When they left Three Rivers Stadium for the new set-up on the South Side, Mary Regan retired. When I went in there before Mary Regan was the only one who knew me. I don’t know who to see now. That’s the way it is.

That may have been the way it was, but that was a pretty remarkable comment from a man who owned a 16% stake in the team and sat on its Board of Directors.

Pat Rooney ran the Palm Beach Kennel Club when the family bought it in 1970 and he moved to Florida to run it full time in 1984.

Although he was the first brother move as far away as Florida, Pat Rooney always remained true to his roots, recounting to O’Brien how he and his brothers would give out season ticket flyers outside the steel mills during shift changes, back when season tickets cost $25 or $30 dollars.

And Rooney remained close to his brothers, as he explained to O’Brien, “I talk to John every day. I talk to Tim about three or four times a week. I talk to Art several times a week. I talk to Dan now and then. John talks to Dan almost every day, and he tells me what Dan said. I talk to Art II.”

Like Dan Rooney, Pat was involved in the America Ireland Fund and even maintained a home in County Clare for a decade, where he’d spend approximately 2 months a year.

One of Pat Rooney’s chief initiatives was to bring slot machines to the family’s race tracks. That brought the family into conflict with the NFL’s gambling regulations (oh, how times have changed), which forced the Rooney brothers to divest their interests in the race tracks.

Pat Rooney along with his brother Tim wanted to accept Stanley Druckenmiller’s offer, however his other brother’s wishes prevailed. Although Pat didn’t quite get his way, events ultimately validated his wisdom.

In Ed Bouchette’s iconic 1992 volume Dawn of a New Steel Age, when talking about the possibility of keeping the Steelers within the family, Pat Rooney predicted, “Realistically Art’s going to have to buy out the partners.”

Dan and Art Rooney II kept control of the team, with Tim and Pat completely divesting their shares as part of their estate planning, while Art Jr. and John maintained small stakes.

Patrick was predeceased by his brothers Dan and John and is survived by wife Sandra Sully Rooney and their seven children, several grandchildren and one great grandchild. Steel Curtain Rising offers them our thoughts and our prayers.

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Random Thoughts: A Shopping List, a Steelers Stub on Santonio Holmes & The Upcoming Season

How do we know when either a player and/or an entire football team has “Arrived?”

That can be a tricky question to answer.

The 2022 Pittsburgh Steelers started the year in such uninspiring fashion that veteran sports writer Jim Wexell made sure to make it back to Pittsburgh cover an early season game in person because he thought a 1-16 team (and an ensuring book) might be in the offing.

  • But of course that didn’t happen.

The schedule got easier. Kenny Pickett stopped making mistakes. The offensive line matured. Najee Harris resumed running like first round pick. T.J. Watt returned from IR.

The Steelers finished 2022 with a bang. Kenny Pickett led dramatic, come from behind wins over the Raiders and the Ravens and authored a convincing closing performance against the Browns.

  • Omar Khan and Andy Weidl sprinted out of the gate to start the off season.

Out went Cam Sutton, Terrell Edmunds, Robert Spillane, Devin Bush and Myles Jack. In came Patrick Peterson, Cole Holcomb, Elandon Roberts, Isaac Seumalo and Keanu Neal.

Santonio Holmes, Super Bowl XLIII, Santonio Holmes toe tap, Steelers vs Cardinals

Santonio Holmes Super Bowl XLIII toe tap touchdown. Photo Credit: Sports Illustrated

Then came the 2023 NFL Draft. As Art Rooney Sr. reminded us “everybody’s a winner on draft day,” but the Steelers haul from Broderick Jones to Darnell Washington seemed to make even the most hardened members of the “Fire Everyone” chorus happy.

I too confess to sharing this spirit of optimism that is permeating Steelers Nation. The arrow is pointing up in Pittsburgh.

Yet, a while back I stumbled upon a word of caution, or potential caution at least, hiding in plain sight in Saturday morning shopping list.

Take a look for yourself:

A Steelers article stub and a Saturday Morning Shopping list. (For non-Spanish speakers, my wife tasked me with buying green, red & yellow peppers, grated cheese, sweet potatoes, bananas, green onion, onion, red onion and two pastries for vegetable pies.)

This Steelers article stub, turned piece of scrap-paper, turned shopping list carries no date, but it has to have been written during the Steelers 2009 off season. The writer too remains unknown. It resonates with the distinct echo of  the late, great Ivan Cole’s voice, but a Google search for those exact phrases and limited to BTSC returns no results.

But those unknowns are unimportant.

This anonymous Steelers stub is still telling us something important.

In the moment that this piece was published, the logic about Santonio Holmes seemed self-evident. ‘Tone, after a troubled start to his career and distracting his team just a few months earlier had turned an irrevocable corner with his Super Bowl XLIII toe-tap.

Except he hadn’t.

Santonio Holmes 2009 season was best remembered for the plays he failed to make. A troublesome off-season followed where he was in the news for all the wrong reasons. That got him shipped to the New York Jets for a 5th round pick.

  • Might this message offer us a useful lesson for the upcoming 2023 season?

Even as they struggled through tough moments in 2021 and 2022, it became apparent that the Steelers had added several “foundational players.” Think Pat Freiermuth. Think Alex Highsmith. Think, perhaps at least, Connor Heyward. They’ve added more of those during the off season.

Andi Weidl has brought his “planet theory” of offensive line building to Pittsburgh, and that should cheer the hearts of true devotes of “Steelers Football.” The Steelers appear to be headed in the right direction.

But as the Santonio Holmes experience reminds us, actions and outcomes instead of appearances, will define the 2023 Steelers.

In many ways, Mike Tomlin’s “Kenny _ucking Pickett!” was the signature moment of the Steelers 2022 season just as ‘Tone’s toe tap was the signature moment of 2008.

But what Santino Holmes failed to understand was that his moment neither defined nor established his legacy, but rather opened the door to building himself into a true Steelers legend.

The same is true for Kenny Pickett. Let’s hope he realizes it.

All evidence suggests that he does. But it is something to keep in mind the Steelers descend on St. Vincents later this week.

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Myron Cope was Right about Daniel Snyder. The NFL Should Have Listened 23 Years Ago

The NFL owners voted unanimously to approve the sale of the Washington Commanders from Daniel Snyder to Steelers minority owner Josh Harris, thus ending one of the most ignominious ownership tenures in league history.

You know what? If they’d have listened to Myron Cope 23 years ago they could have saved everyone a ton of trouble.

How’s that? Follow along and find out.

Myron Cope

Myron Cope: Long time radio voice and soul of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Photo Credit: Christopher Horner, Tribune Review

Red Flags Flash Early in the Snyder Era

In 1999 Daniel Snyder bought the then Washington Redskins after winning the second round an auction held by the late Jack Kent Cooke’s estate. NFL owners were not pleased. They’d already pressured Daniel Milstein and Snyder to withdraw a previous bid. John Kent Cooke, Jack’s son, had come in second in the and, if memory serves, Dan Rooney openly asked if the NFL owners could consider both proposals.

  • They could not. Snyder got the team.

Snyder got control of the team in May and could do little ahead of the upcoming season. Except fire a bunch of secretaries, administrative employees and other low-level office staffers as a way of showing he was in charge.

  • Snyder made it clear he was going to be more demanding than John Kent Cooke.

Fans and the press liked that. Yet, a friend of mine told me how a business associate of his had been called to the team facilities in Ashburn to do some work on the field. He crossed paths with Snyder, one-on-one in a quiet corridor, extend his hand saying, “Mr. Snyder, I’m a longtime fan. And I just want to say that I love what you’re doing with the team.” Snyder ignored him, said nothing and left him hanging as he walked by.

Contrast that with Art Rooney Sr.’s encounter with Craig Wolfley and Tunch Ilkin shortly after the 1980 NFL Draft. The Chief stopped by in the main waiting room at Three Rivers Stadium, and chatted with the guys as he emptied ashtrays. They thought Rooney was a janitor, not realizing he was the owner who’d just bagged his 4th Lombardi Trophy.

Yeah, that was the first sign that Daniel Snyder would be the anti-Dan Rooney. But not the last.

The Snyder Era’s First Rendezvous with the Steelers

True to his word, Snyder “applied some pressure” and Washington made the playoffs and even won a wild card game, its first since Super Bowl XXVI in 1991. As Washington started the 2000 off season on a high note, Danny was licking his chops.

With Snyder at the helm, Washington hit the free agent market with reckless abandon, spending 100 million dollars on free agents.

  • Others had tried and failed to “Buy a Lombardi,” but both fans and press in Washington drank to Kool-Aid.

Listeners called into Sports Talk 980 WTEM predicting an undefeated season. In late May at a barbecue in the DC suburbs, fans needled yours truly, pointing to the Steelers dismal 1999 effort and predicting disaster for the Steelers December match up against Washington, the final game at Three Rivers Stadium. Then to rub a little salt into the wound, one sheepishly asked, “I wonder if we signed Deion today?” (When they actually signed Dieon a few days later, the Washington Post ran a front page article and devoted a quarter of the Sports section to the deal.)

Days before the season opener against the Carolina Panthers, the owner of the Wheaton Athletic Club quipped, “…I’m tried of people speculating what it means if he [long forgotten Panthers player] plays or not. A win is going to be a win.”

“Yeah, just like a Super Bowl is gonna be a Super Bowl!” a patron responded.

Washington won that first game, but quickly showed themselves as a middling team while Snyder showed himself to be a meddling owner, complete with ESPN zooming in on a sideline phone labeled “Mr. Snyder” – Danny didn’t hesitate to call Norv Turner during the game when he wasn’t happy.

And Danny was often unhappy, firing Turner after a 7-9 loss to the Giants, two weeks before Washington was set to travel to Pittsburgh where Myron Cope would offer the result of the league advice that they’d have been wise to take.

Franco Harris, Jerome Bettis after the final game at Three Rivers Stadium

Jerome Bettis & Franco Harris @ Final Game at Three Rivers Stadium. Photo Credit: Matt Freed, Post-Gazette

Myron Cope loved nicknames, and decided going into the week that Washington would be the “Wash Redfaces.” With the Steelers leading 17-3 at the half in their Three Rivers Stadium finale (oh, was it such a pleasure to see Jerome Bettis steamroll Deion Sanders) Snyder sent someone from his PR team instructing Myron Cope to stop using the term Redfaces.

As Cope explained in Double Yoi, as soon as the commercial break was over, he informed listeners “You’re not going to believe what I’m going to tell you.” He then shared the news of Snyder’s demand, assuring listeners, “If that boy billionaire thinks he can shut me up, he should stick his head in a can of paint.”

As Tom Boswell of the Washington Post opined afterwards, “Like it or not, Myron Cope was speaking for America. And the Redskins should listen.”

Alas, they did not.

Nearly 23 years later, you can rest assured that the NFL wishes it had taken the advice of the late, great Myron Cope a lot sooner.

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II Art Rooney Remembering His Roots Evident as Steelers Oppose Thursday Night Flexing

A few weeks back when the Steelers voted against the NFL’s decision to flex Thursday night games during weeks 13-17, I wondered, “Maybe Franco told Art Rooney about Mateo?”

Franco Harris, Art Rooney II,

Art Rooney II announces retirement of Franco Harris’ jersey. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Mateo Labriola (no relation to Bob, or so he insists) is an Argentine Steelers fan who was fortunate enough to meet Franco Harris on a while visiting the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I shared their story in my eulogy for Franco. Here’s the digest version:

It was December 2017 and Mateo was visiting the United States to see the Steelers. He was at Paul Brown Stadium the night Ryan Shazier’s career ended.

But Mateo’s journey wasn’t making a one-act show.

He had tickets to see the Steelers vs the Ravens at Heinz Field the following week. In between, he stopped in Canton to visit the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where fortune brought him together with Franco Harris. It’s a good thing for Mateo that there was no flexing of Thursday night games back in December 2017, or otherwise their encounter may never have happened.

Had the NFL, in their infinite greed, been able to flex either of those games, Mateo would have been forced reprogram his entire trip. Fate could have easily forced him to sacrifice his trip to Canton.

Franco Harris, Mateo Labriola, Steelers Argentina

Franco Harris with Argentine Steelers fan in Canton, Ohio, 2017.

And truthfully, that would have been the least of his problems. In December 2017 the Argentine peso US Dollar exchange rate was 17.4 to 1 (today it is 250.5 to 1 – the black market rate is nearly twice that, but that’s another story.) Rebooking hotel rooms and travel could have easily been cost prohibitive.

  • He even might have been forced to miss one of the games.

Mateo is hardly the only international Steelers fan to scrimp and save to make pilgrimage to see the Steelers. Shortly after news of the decision to flex Thursday night games broke, I got this in a WhatsApp feed hosted by Mexican Steelers fans.

Mexican Steelers Fans, Mexican Steelers fans 2023 trip

For those who don’t speak Spanish, this is a flyer advertising a trip to see the Steelers December 3rd and December 7th games against the Cardinals and the Patriots, with a return flight to Mexico on December the 8th.

This seems like a petty good deal, but those games fall on weeks 13 and 14, inside the NFL’s Thursday night flex window. That means if both the Cardinals and Steelers are hot late in the season, the NFL could decide to pull that game to Thursday night.

Conversely, if either the Steelers or that Patriots are struggling come December, the NFL could simply decide to push their Thursday night game to Sunday.

I asked friend who knows organizers of the trip and he replied, “…No tienen plan B” – they don’t have a plan B. So  if the NFL decides to flex either of those games, then I guess those Mexican fans will simply be SOL.

Sure, they’ll be 28 days advanced notice before a game is flexed to Thursday night, but changing international flight plans will still be an expensive nightmare.

  • I opened this article with a bit of a while lie.

Yes, I did think of Mateo when I heard about flexing Thursday night games. But no, I don’t really think that Franco Harris mentioned anything about meeting Mateo to Art Rooney II. He didn’t need to.

Like his father Dan Rooney and his grandfather Art Rooney Sr. before him, Art Rooney II understand that the fans who bust their asses day in and day out, the ones who revel in tailgating, the ones who wouldn’t dream of trading in an Iron City and seat in Section 188 for chardonnay and a spot in the luxury box are what make the NFL the power house it is.

That’s the same sentiment that led Dan Rooney to buy hundreds of delivery pizzas for fans waiting in the snow to buy tickets to the 1995 Steelers AFC Championship game.

In that light, it is fitting that the New York Giants, New York Jets, Chicago Bears, Las Vegas Raiders, Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals joined Pittsburgh Steelers in opposing Thursday Night flexing.

With the exception of the Jets, those teams make up what’s left of the league’s “old guard owners” – owners of teams who have enough institutional memory to recall a time when the NFL didn’t dominate popular culture, when the NFL had to fight for the attention, loyalty and and yes, the money of the “average fan.”

That’s something the other 25 NFL owners now take for granted.

They should not.

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Careful for What You Wish For: Steelers Free Agent Benny Snell Likely to Leave Pittsburgh

Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. disdained, “Putting on the dog.” In 21st century terms, “putting on the dog” might translate to “strutting your stuff” or doing anything that wasn’t modest.

He expected his sons to follow suit, instructing them “Don’t drive a Cadillac, drive a Buick.” When Art Sr. went to Philadelphia to visit John Rooney (or perhaps it was Pat), his son tried to steer his father around the house in a way that made sure his father didn’t see that he’d had a pool installed. His father found the pool. The Chief was not pleased.

Most Steelers fans have probably never heard the expression “putting on the dog,” but they’ve absorbed The Chief’s philosophy all the same – We don’t like it when players show boat.

So when the Steelers drafted Benny Snell Jr. in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft and Snell arrived in Pittsburgh talking about “Benny Snell Football” it left a bad taste in the mouth of many fans. A taste that still lingers for many, if not most.

Now that Benny Snell is about to become a free agent, are Steelers fans about to get their pallets clean?

Benny Snell, Steelers vs Colts, Steelers vs Colts 2022 MNF

Benny Snell rips off a long one. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Capsule Profile of Benny Snell’s Career with the Steelers

Benny Snell got it backwards. Players who live at the bottom of depth charts are supposed to do well in spot duty but struggle when they get a full audition.

  • Snell’s done the opposite.

In 2019 he got 75 yards in his first extensive action in the Steelers win over the Chargers, 98 in his first start against the Bengals and over 100 in the season finale against the Ravens. He clocked in over 100 in relief of James Conner in the 2020 opener, and ran well in extensive action in wins against the Ravens and losses to the Bengals.

Injuries limited him to spot duty in 2021, and he was as he’s always been when his carries have been limited – uninspiring. In 2022 Snell mostly played special teams, but he did get 60 yards and a touchdown in the win over the Colts.

The Case for the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

That win over the Colts will always be Kenny Pickett’s first come from behind win. But Benny Snell’s rushing laid the foundation that made that win possible. Snell might not be a starting caliber running back, but he’s done enough to show he can be a good number two back and most teams would beg for a number 3 back of his talents.

The Case Against the Steelers Resigning Benny Snell

The Steelers don’t have a lot of salary cap space. They’re not in dire straits, but Omar Khan is going to need to make moves even if the Steelers are to take a conservative approach to free agency.

Benny Snell is simply a luxury the Steelers cannot afford.

Curtain’s Call on the Steelers and Benny Snell

The NFL might be quarterback driven, pass happy league. Well, there’s no “might” about it. But I remain an unapologetic believer that your running back depth chart must be at least three players deep. As I asked rhetorically after the Colts win, “Does anyone think the Steelers win that game if the 2022 equivalents of Stevan Ridley and/or Fitzgerald Toussaint are playing instead of Benny Snell?”

Point made.

And if Mike Tomlin may be warming to staffing better depth at running back, doing so with a veteran on a second contract may be a different question altogether. And the Steelers have already signed Anthony McFarland to a “Futures Contract” so Anthony McFarland’s name may already be penciled into that role.

Moreover, Steelers top two running back slots are held by Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren, and they’ve earned their status on merit.

So you have to ask, would Benny Snell be interested in coming back to Pittsburgh as a third stringer? Probably not.

At the end of the day, while keeping Benny Snell in the Black and Gold is ideal, expect him to take “Benny Snell football” to one of the NFL’s other 31 teams.

Follow Steelers free agency. Visit our Steelers 2023 Free Agent tracker or click here for all Steelers 2023 free agent focus articles.

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Despite a Low Profile, the Late John Rooney Played Key Role in Shaping Steelers

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner and youngest son of founder Art Rooney Sr., passed away last week at the age of 83.

Of the five Rooney brothers, John Rooney held one of the lowest profiles with respect to the franchise. Yet, despite that low profile, John Rooney did play an important role in shaping the Pittsburgh Steelers that we know today.

Here we’ll take a look at that role as well as his larger life.

John Rooney, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner, John Rooney Obituary

The late John Rooney. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

John Rooney – Teacher Turned Business Man

John Rooney is the youngest son of Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. and his wife Kass, having been born in 1939, the second of twins. John, like his brothers Dan, Art Jr., Tim and his twin Pat, when to the North Sides’s St. Peter’s Catholic School and then to North Catholic (where Tom Donahoe and Kevin Colbert also graduated.)

John and his brother Pat studied at Mt. St. Mary’s College, in Emmittsbrug, Maryland, graduating in English. From there he went on to teach English in Plum Boro. John later revealed to author Jim O’Brien for his book 2002 The Chief:

Teaching was the most rewarding job I ever had. I never had another job where you got a rush every day about what you were doing to compare with that. You looked into the faces of the students and you saw that something was coming through. Some learning was taking place. You didn’t get that same sort of rush in business.

But as the father needing to support six kids, Rooney was forced to go into business. He moved to Philadelphia to work in the family’s race tracks, coming home in the summer to help with Steelers training camp.

Rooney admitted to O’Brien that, he like his other brothers wanted to work for the Steelers, “But the door wasn’t really open to anyone but Dan. The rest of us knew – it was made pretty clear to us – that we had to find something different to do.”

  • This is hardly surprising.

Art Rooney Sr. knew that sports franchises could hold the allure of a narcotic. As Ed Bouchtte detailed in Dawn of a New Steel Age, when Art Sr. once asked his son Pat “What are you doing here?” when he saw him show up at Three Rivers Stadium for a Steelers game, reminding him that his part of the family business was in Philadelphia.

  • Indeed. Art Rooney Jr. only entered the scouting department after an unsuccessful foray as an actor.

And while Art Jr. oversaw some of the most successful drafts in NFL history, including the 1974 draft that netted 4 Hall of Famers, communications breakdowns between Chuck Noll and Art Jr. forced Dan to fire his brother in 1986.

Art backed Dan’s decision, true to his “There can only be one boss,” philosophy, but as John confided to O’Brien, “It was difficult for the rest of us when Dan decided that Art didn’t fit into the football picture anymore. That was difficult for my father to accept.”

Although he had no other formal involvement of running of the Steelers, John did inherit 16% of the team when Art Rooney Sr. died in 1988,  setting up to play an important, if not critical role in shaping the structure of the franchise today.

John Rooney’s Role in the 2008 Ownership Restructuring

While the Rooneys are known for their association with the Steelers, they’ve long been dominant players in the race track business. John Rooney helped run tracks in Philadelphia and then Florida along with his brother Tim. And, as John admitted to O’Brien, the tracks were more profitable than the Steelers in the 60’s and 70’s.

  • As gambling laws eased during the 1990’s and the 00’s, the Rooneys added video poker to some of their tracks.

This ran afoul of the NFL’s anti-gambling bylaws (my, how times change) leading Roger Goodell to force the Rooneys restructure the team’s ownership to get into compliance.

  • That’s where things got sticky.

Dan Rooney made his brothers an initial offer, and when they didn’t find that satisfactory, they sought outside investors. Stanley Druckenmiller leapt at the chance to get a piece of his favorite team, and made the four Rooney brothers an offer.

When it came time to make a decision in the fall of 2008, the brothers couldn’t reach a consensus, but that John Rooney “’argued for his brothers to take Dan Rooney’s offer at their meeting, but no decision was made on that matter.’”

The brothers did eventually come to an agreement to the bulk of their shares to Dan and his son Art II and it is certainly possible, perhaps probably that they would have done so anyway, but John’s steadfast support of his older brother certainly helped ensure the franchise’s stability in the face of Druckenmiller’s takeover attempt.

The final deal saw John Rooney retain and 8% stake in the franchise, which was further reduced to 1% in 2015.

  • Nonetheless, John retained his seat on the Steelers Board of Directors until his death.

John Rooney is survived by his wife JoAnn, his kids Sean, Mary Jo, Alice, Peter, and Matt. He was predeceased by his son Jimmy, whom he lost in a car accident. Our thoughts and prayers are with the entire Rooney family.

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Remembering Franco Harris: Hall of Famer, Community Pillar, Ambassador of Steelers Nation

In news that is as shocking as it is saddening, Pittsburgh Steelers legend and Hall of Famer Franco Harris has passed away. His death came just two days before the 50th anniversary of the Immaculate Reception and 3 days before the Steelers were to retire his number.

Franco Harris will be only the third Steeler to have his jersey retired, joining defensive stalwarts Ernie Stautner and Joe Greene. When the Steelers retired Joe Greene’s number in 2014, Steel Curtain Rising titled our tribute to him, “Joe Greene – Portrait of a Pittsburgh Steeler” as in, if you want to see what a perfect Pittsburgh Steeler is, look to Joe Greene.

The same can be said of Franco Harris – as a player, as a teammate, as a pillar of the Pittsburgh community and a global ambassador of Steelers Nation. Below we show why.

Franco Harris, Franco Harris obituary

Franco Harris. Photo Credit: Karl Roser, Steelers.com

Getting to Know Franco

My “football awareness” as a Generation X Steelers fan coincided precisely with the Super Steelers wins in Super Bowl XIII and Super Bowl XIV. As shared here before, the kids on Wendy Lane played “Super Steelers” giving members of the squad superhero powers.

  • Mean Joe Greene had super strength and could turn himself into a giant.
  • Lynn Swann had super speed, like the Flash.
  • Jack Lambert was basically Black and Gold Incredible Hulk missing his front teeth.
  • Terry Bradshaw could throw bombs.
  • Chuck Noll played a Professor Xavier like role

As for Franco Harris? Franco could run through walls.

My first real “encounter” with Franco Harris (I was only just realizing his name wasn’t Frank O’Harris) was through a Scholastic booked titled 13 All Pro Running Backs. Franco was on the cover, I saw it at the Harmony Hill’s Elementary School book fair, and it was mine.

I don’t remember much about the book, other than this was where I learned what the word “drive” meant in a football context.

Terry Bradshaw, Franco Harris, Lynn Swann, Steelers, Steelers of the 70s

Franco Harris, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann

Learning about Franco

Although I knew enough about Franco Harris for him to form part of the “Wendy Lane Steelers Super Heroes” group, I have to honestly say I don’t have any memories of seeing him play.

  • Yes, I certainly watched games where he played.

But unlike Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swann or John Stallworth, I can’t say that I remember seeing him play in real time. Those lessons would come later, and 3 key plays Franco appreciate his greatness on the field even more.

“Don’t Over Coach Him”

As everyone knows, Chuck Noll did not want to draft Franco Harris. Art Rooney Jr. did. Art Jr. had to resort to calling George Young to convince Noll to pick Harris. Noll picked him, and then turned to Rooney and said, “You’d better be right.”

Early on, skepticism seemed justified. Franco came to training camp late, and as Jim Wexell reports, Rocky Bleier thought he was “Lazy” while Ray Mansfield “didn’t think he could make the team.”

Offensive backfield coach Dick Hoak related to Wexell, “I’m spending time with him and boy he doesn’t look very good those first few weeks. We’re all wondering, what the heck?”

The first preseason game came, against Atlanta. The play was supposed to be off tackle, but when the blocking collapsed Franco cut back and ripped off a 76 yard touchdown.

Chuck Noll approached Dick Hoak with a simple instruction, “Don’t over coach him.”

The Immaculate Reception

You can read my reflection on the Immaculate Reception here. When asked about the play immediately after the game, Franco Harris shrugged it off, insisting he was in the right place at the right time.

  • But there’s a reason why.

As Chuck Noll explained, Franco was able to make that play because he “Hustled on every play.”

“Give Me the Ball.”

The Steelers-Cowboys rivalry of the 70’s may not have achieved the critical mass that the Yankees-Dodgers reached before it or that the Celtics-Lakers achieved after it, but it was the key sports rivalry of the 70’s.

“Hollywood” Henderson insulted Bradshaw, insisting the Blond Bomber couldn’t spell “cat” if you give him the “c” and the “t.” He backed up his trash talk with a late hit on Bradshaw. In the huddle, a furious Franco Harris commanded, “Give me the ball.”

Even though it was 3rd and 9, Bradshaw complied.

  • Franco ran 22 yards for a touchdown.

There’s your recipe for an NFL Hall of Famer: An instinctual player, dedicated to maximizing his God-given talent, who is loyal to his teammates and delivers a big play when the game is on the line.

Franco Harris: Steelers Nation’s First Citizen & Spreader of the Faith

Franco Harris’ football resume is enough to earn him the honor of having his number retired. But what really made Franco special was his work off the field. As Tony Defeo argues, Franco Harris embraced his “Italian Army” which helped give rise to Steelers Nation.

But what most people don’t know, is that Franco remained close with the Army’s founder Al Vento and his family for the rest of his life.

Franco Harris was active in the Greater Pittsburgh Community. His efforts on behalf of charities, foundations and other civic organizations are too numerous to try to list here. And he was committed to social justice.

Dan Rooney, Franco Harris, Mike Wagner, Jon Kolb, Gerry Mullins

Dan Rooney with Franco Harris and several other “Super Steelers” Photo Credit: Post-Gazette

As Dan Rooney related in his autobiography, the Pittsburgh police contacted Franco who was planning a sit-in in protest of a Ku Klux Klan rally. Both the police and Rooney feared for Franco’s safety. Rooney talked Franco into joining a counter, peaceful protest, that far outnumbered the Klan that day.

  • Through it all, Franco Harris maintained his humility.

As former ABC Radio Executive Mike Silverstein recounted, when Franco arrived in Pittsburgh, he took the “71 Negley bus from his place in the Friendship/Garfield neighborhood for the first seven weeks of the regular season.”

Can you imagine, even in 1972, any other NFL first round draft pick taking the bus to work?

But, as the sign that hung in Coach Eric Taylor’s locker room reminded us on Friday Night Lights, “Character is what you do when no one else is looking.”

  • In reality, Franco passed fictional coach Taylor’s test time-and-time again.

During the height of the Iraq War, a story circulated on the internet of a solider meeting Franco at the airport, asking for a picture. Franco asked where he was going. “Iraq via Atlanta” the Hall of Famer was told. Franco wished him luck.

When the solider arrived at the gate, he found out that he’d been upgraded to first class and seated next to Harris for his trip to Atlanta.

  • That’s just who Franco Harris was.

I know, because something similar happened to a friend of mine. I met Mateo Labriola (he insists there’s no relation to Bob, but we don’t quite believe him) when he started a Steelers Argentina Twitter account. Through the years we became friends, and have watched a few games together (including the 2015 playoff win over Cincinnati.)

In 2017 Mateo and his mother traveled to the US to see the Steelers play the Bengals in Cincinnati (the game where Shazier’s career ended) and the Ravens in Pittsburgh. They stopped at Canton, Ohio and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Franco Harris happened to be at an event in Canton that day. Mateo approached the organizers saying, “Hey, I’ve come all the way from Argentina. I’m a Steelers fan. Is it possible to meet Franco Harris in person?”

Franco Harris, Mateo Labriola, Steelers Argentina

Franco Harris with Argentine Steelers fan in Canton, Ohio, 2017.

He was told to wait. Franco sure enough came out, met Mateo and took a picture with him.

  • You can imagine this happening with any number of sports figures, but not what comes next.

Franco asked him if he was going to the game in Pittsburgh that coming week. Mateo said yes, he had tickets, but his mother didn’t. Franco solved that problem for him, by inviting them both to see the game from his Luxury box at Heinz Field!

Not only did he do that for two strangers from Argentina, Franco drove in his own car to Mateo’s hotel, and personally dropped off the tickets at the hotel, stopping to take pictures with everyone in the lobby. Franco’s son insisted on not letting them pay for any food or drink during the event (and as someone who has organized corporate events at stadiums, I can assure you luxury box food prices are anything but cheap.)

  • That is what Franco Harris did while no one was looking.

Franco Harris was a great player. As Joe Greene, Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II observed, the Steelers never won anything before Franco Harris arrived, never suffered a losing season while he wore the Black and Gold, and have had a lot more difficulty winning since he left.

  • But as the stories here show, Franco Harris was an ever greater person than he was a player.

Steelers Nation hasn’t just lost one of his greatest Hall of Famers, it has lost perhaps its greatest ambassador.

Rest in Peace Franco Harris, our thoughts and prayers are with you, your wife Dana and his son Dok.

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Looking Back: Steelers Last Win in Philadelphia Gave Mike Nixon His 15 Minutes of Fame

Tomorrow Mike Tomlin will attempt something that neither Bill Austin, nor Chuck Noll nor Bill Cowher ever did:

  • Lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to victory on the road in Philadelphia.

While Philly fans are loyal, there’s no question that when it comes to Pennsylvania’s two football teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers are the Keystone State’s 800-pound gorilla. The Steelers lead the Lombardi count 6 to 1 and have appeared in the Super Bowl 8 times compared to 3.

And of course the Steelers lead the Eagles in other measures such as games won since the NFL-AFL merger, division titles, playoff appearances, wins etc. And the Steelers count on a nationwide, no, global fan base.

  • That’s great. But the Eagles OWN the Steelers when they play in Philly.

The last time the Steelers won a game in Philadelphia was at Franklin Field on Sunday, October 24, 1965 during Mike Nixon’s lone season as coach. 20,825 days have passed since the Steelers clocked that milestone, in case you really, really want to know. It isn’t just the the Steelers 57 year losing streak there:

  • Bad things happen when the Steelers play in Philly.

In 1997 alone, Philadelphia marked the end of Greg Lloyd’s Steelers career. Heck, the last time the Steelers scored a touchdown in Philly was when Kordell Stewart connected with Will Blackwell.

Much Has Changed Since the Steelers Last Win in Philly

A lot has changed since Steelers last win in the City of Brotherly Love.

Their last win came 360 days before my older sister was born (she’s a Ravens fan, but we still love her just the same) so suffice to say I have no memory. And although my parents were newlyweds living in Pittsburgh in 1965, they’re not much for sports so its no use asking them.

  • But thanks to the Magic of Google Newspaper Archives, we can glimpse of what it was like then.

In 1965, man on the moon was more fiction than science. In fact, the headline of October 25th Pittsburgh Press tells us that the Gemini Mission has been Scrubbed as Agenda Fails. The Post-Gazette led with Gemini story too. Except the Post-Gazette tells us Gemini Launching, Space Docking a ‘Go.’

The first Gemini Space rendezvous occurred later that December, but it was supposed to happen in October. (The lesson then, as it is now, is that you need to read beyond the headlines.)

Just below that story, the Post Gazette tells us that UK Prime Minister Harold Wilson is off to Rhodesia for talks with the white settler government who was vying for independence. “Rhodesia” is now best known (at least in Argentina) as a chocolate bar, and the country in question is Zimbabwe.

The Pittsburgh Press devotes about a 1/3 of its front page to Vietnam coverage, and talks about the record low 25- degree temperature Pittsburgh experienced that weekend. It also informs us that the Civic Arena turned its first profit for the first time since it opened in 1961.

Digging into the Post-Gazette you see that Giant Eagle is selling Roast Pork Butt for 49 cents per pound. The same add tells us that a 9 oz package of Scallops would set you back 89 cents.

Not to be out done, A&P is selling “Long Bologna” for 49 cents a pound and Jane Parker Large Apple Pie for 39 cents (normally it would have cost 49 cents, the ad assures us). In between the two adds, you learn that you could have bought a Polaroid Swinger Camera for $19.95.

Yes, times have changed. But has enough changed for the Steelers to recapture some of that 1965 magic?

Mikey Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame

Art Rooney Sr. was notoriously bad at hiring head coaches. Yet even he knew Mike Nixon wasn’t the man for the job. When Dan Rooney accepted/forced Buddy Parker’s resignation during the 1965 preseason, Art Rooney reportedly called Nixon, told him he was going to offer him the job but encouraged him to reject it because he wasn’t ready.

Nixon ignored The Chief’s advice, accepted the job and then preceded to lose his first five games as Steelers head coach. Game six brought the Steelers to Philly, and thus began Mike Nixon’s 15 Minutes of Fame.

  • The Steelers beat the Eagles that day, 20 to 14.
Jim Bradshaw,

1960’s Steelers safety Jim Bradshaw. Photo Credit: Steelers.com

But by the look of the box score, it was an UGLY win. Quarterback Bill Nelsen went 6 of 16 for 79 yards. Running back Mike Lind also got 16 carries, managing 30 yards, but he did catch 2 passes for 11 yards including a touchdown.

The highlight of the day, and one would presume the season, came in the 2nd quarter when safety Jim Bradshaw returned an interception 82 yards for a touchdown, which was one of 3 picks for a total of 101 yards.

The Steelers would win again the next week 22 to 13 over the Dallas Cowboys back at Pitt Stadium. So Mike Nixon can hang his hat on the fact that he’s one of the very few head coaches who went undefeated against Tom Landry during his career.

Alas, after beating Landry, Mike Nixon’s Steelers lost their next 7 games finishing the season 2-12, and Nixon got fired.

Nixon did enough to impress Eagles coach Joe Kuharich, who hired him as an assistant coach, giving Nixon three years of gainful employment before he faded into a footnote in Steelers history.

  • Can Mike Tomlin repeat Mike Nixon’s success in Philly?

It is doubtful. But I’ll wager that Kenny Pickett will pass for more than 79 yards and Najee Harris will run for more than 30 (well, he’d better.) Who knows? But even if Minkah Fitzpatrick has an 82 yard pick six, expect the Eagles to win and the Steelers to take a 2-6 record into the bye week.

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George Pickens Catch = The Beauty and Bliss of Steelers Training Camp

The Steelers returned to St. Vincents, in Latrobe on Tuesday, July 26th after a 2 year thanks to COVID-19. And took just 24 hours and less than one picture on my Whats App to bring home the beauty and bliss that is summer at St. Vincents.

George Pickens, Steelers 2022 training camp, Cam Sutton

George Pickens making a catch on the first day @ St. Vincents. Photo Credit: Post-Gazette.com

When the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted George Pickens in the 2nd round of the 2022 NFL Draft, friends who know a lot more about X’s and O’s than I do were excited. A quick look at his college record revealed why. This kid had talent, and were it not for an injury, he’d surely have gone early in the 1st round.

And this first photo from training camp makes it easy to see why:

In a single shot you have the beauty of training camp.

Sure, as Jim Wexell pointed out, it was only, “a lazy, looping “bomb” by Trubisky that Cam Sutton allowed George Pickens to catch as he was falling down.” But you know what? It matters not. And that’s the bliss of training camp.

Art Rooney Sr. once lamented to a reporter that, “Everyone’s a winner on draft day.” The Chief was right. The draft is about potential. St. Vincent is about seeing how can prove their potential.

Every summer is filled with these moments like George Pickens catch. Some of these go on to earn their rightful spot in Steelers lore, such as Joe Greene dominating in the Oklahoma Drill as soon as he arrived at St. Vincents or Ben Roethlisberger making an “a memorable rollout, throwback, 40-yard laser to Zamir Cobb” that caught Bill Cowher’s attention and brought Big Ben 1 step closer to Tommy Maddox on the depth chart.

Others, fade into obscurity. During my first year in Buenos Aires prior to the Steelers 2001 season I remember excitedly read Bob Labriola’s account in the Steelers Digest Kendrell Bell stopping Jerome Bettis at the goal line with a hit so resounding that it echoed off the hills which surround Chuck Noll field.

No one remembers that now because today Jerome Bettis is in the NFL Hall of Fame, while Kendrell Bell is a One Year Wonder Steelers rookie of the year.

  • How will we remember George Pickens catch a generation from now?

Will we see it as the first sign that this kid was something special?  Or will this photo only serve to remind us of how deeply he disappointed us ? Only time can tell us where George Pickens’ journey will take him and just as time will tell us where the 2022 Steelers journey will take them.

But that one photo of George Pickens is proof that the journey has begun.

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Lesson from JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Injury? Its Never Wise to Bet Against the House

“Tragic” and “Devastating” are just two of the words that JuJu Smith-Schuster‘s the season-ending injury evokes. There’s another word which isn’t being bandied about but probably should be: Unsurprising.

  • Yes, JuJu’s injury is unsurprising simply because it is never wise to bet against the house.
JuJu Smith-Schuster, JuJu Smith-Schuster injury, Steelers vs. Broncos

JuJu Smith-Schuster leaves the field after a season-ending injury. Photo Credit: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“Betting against the house” in this case has nothing to do with wagers or gambling (sorry if some point-spread-focused Google search led you here) but it does have everything to do with trying to oppose the odds.

  • That’s because history is driven by competing forces.

On the one hand you have men and women who make decisions that alter destinies of themselves and others for good or for ill. Yet at other times, historical forces conspire to move people in directions they had no intention of following.

  • Football is no exception. In fact, it proves the rule.

In football, owners, general managers, coaches and players all have the power to make choices that shape history.

In the late ‘60s Art Rooney Sr. chose to give control of the Steelers to Dan Rooney, who hired Bill Nunn Jr., who hired Chuck Noll, who drafted Joe Greene, Mel Blount, Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris and, well, if you’re reading this you know how that story ends.

In the NFL, the winds of history blow against the best decision makers from varied directions, but the most common angles it takes are age, injury and the salary cap.

For an easy example, think back to the Steelers November 2014 game against the New Orleans Saints. The game was hailed as the reunion of the “4 War Horses”Troy Polamalu, James Harrison, Ike Taylor and Brett Keisel.

  • Several sites and media outlets had stories commemorating the reunion. It was a great story that could only make Steelers Nation feel good.

But what happened? Brett Keisel suffered a career-ending injury that afternoon, Ike Taylor struggled so badly that he benched himself the following week, and Troy Polamalu only had four games games left in him. The “4 War Horses” was quickly reduced to James Harrison, the Lone Ranger.

  • And so it is with the 2021 Pittsburgh Steelers.

When the off season started the Steelers faced Salary Cap Armageddon. A wholesale roster purge seemed inevitable. But thanks to Ben Roethlisberger’s pay cut, voidable contracts, contract restructures and a few cuts, Kevin Colbert stemmed the bloodletting.

There were even a few pleasant surprises! Vince Williams was a cap casualty who decided to return at a hometown discount. Tyson Alualu agreed to terms with the Jaguars, got COVID and had to stay in Pittsburgh, then reupped with the Steelers. And of course JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t get the offer he felt he deserved and he too returned.

But what happened next reminds me of the introduction to Raisin in the Sun. In finishing her description of the Younger living room Lorraine Hansberry concludes:

And here a table or a chair has been moved to disguise the worn places in the carpet; but the carpet has fought back by showing its weariness, with depressing uniformity, elsewhere on its surface.

Similar forces are working their will on the Steelers roster.

First, Vince Williams thought better of returning and decided to start his Life’s Work. Then in week two a broken ankle relegated Tyson Alualu to injured reserve, possibly ending the 34-year old’s season and perhaps career. And now, five games into his “prove it season,” major shoulder surgery has ended JuJu Smith-Schuster’s season.

Yes, Kevin Colbert moved plenty of contract numbers around to hide the holes the salary cap created in the Steelers’ roster, but five games into the season, the roster is already showing its weariness.

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