ART ROONEY IN 1976
by Bill Scholl
When the Browns showed up at Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium four weeks ago for a light loosening up and to get acquainted with the artificial turf, a familiar figure was already on the premises.
He was standing along the sideline at about the 20-yard marker chatting with a few acquaintances. He wore a heavy coat for protection against the chill wind, an old style cap and was chomping on the ever present cigar.
Unless you knew in advance, one wasn't likely to guess he was Art Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers. But then, after all these years, just about everyone in Pittsburgh and countless others outside that city's confines do know him.
As the Cleveland contingent wandered on to the field in advance of the players, Rooney greeted each one by name with a friendly handshake and a few kind words. Then the stories and reminiscing began and continued throughout the hour the team was on the field.
A suspicious person, such as anyone connected with the Oakland Raiders outfit, might have thought Rooney and any other Pittsburgher in the area was there to spy. Two weeks earlier the Raiders ordered the stadium completely cleared before starting a similar workout.
The ground crew balked and the Raiders' brain trust finally relented, but grudgingly. Later Oakland coach John Madden reportedly had dinner with several of the crew members and they wound up good friends.
Folksy, homespun Art Rooney is about as far removed from being a spy as it's possible to get. He wouldn't know it if a pro football secret walked up and squashed his cigar, and he admits it.
Although he has owned the Steelers since their inception 41 years ago, Rooney says, "I can't tell when a team has a good practice, or a bad one. I never can tell whether the players are ready or not until the game actually begins. Once it starts, you usually know."
As the Browns went through their paces, Rooney looked around the expanse of Three Rivers Stadium and said, "The old Federal League used to play its baseball games right on this site." So did the National League's Pirates until Forbes Field was built in 1909.
The long ago stadium was called Expo Park and in the days before flood control every overflowing of the converging Allegheny and Monongahela rivers put the entire area under water. "In those days, if you spit in these rivers the flood came up," says Rooney. "It wasn't unusual to paddle our way to school in a boat."
Rooney's parents owned a tavern near the ballpark and, he says, "Many was the time we climbed out the bedroom window on the second floor right into a boat."
One such day a buddy named Squawker Mullen did too much moving around, upset the boat, and Rooney nearly drowned. Weighed down by boots and an overcoat, he barely made it to the nearby grandstand.
Rooney suffered long and quietly with his Steelers. There were few winning seasons through the first 39 years and only once, in 1947, did the team get close enough for a playoff. Even then, Philadelphia shut out the Steelers 21-0.
Two years ago, though, things changed dramatically for the long suffering organisation as Chuck Noll's astute drafting and coaching methods really took hold. The Steelers finished 11-3 and have been a power ever since.
Someone glanced up at the empty press box that day four weeks ago and said, "Art, did you really miss that all-time play two years ago when Franco Harris grabbed the deflected pass in the final seconds to beat Oakland in the playoffs?"
Rooney laughed and said, "Yep, but this is the real story: They wanted to give me a police escort from the press box to the elevator for the ride to the locker room at the end of the game.
We were losing at the time and I didn't want an escort. I could just hear fans saying, `Look, Rooney has the cops along for protection.'
So, I left on my own with a couple minutes left and didn't find out we won until I got to the locker room. The team wasn't in yet, but the clubhouse attendant heard it on the radio."
(From the 1976 official Pro programme for the October 10 Steelers' game at Cleveland Stadium, written by Bill Scholl)
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