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A Loss For Everyone

Dan Rooney will be put to rest today. It's a loss for everyone.

I went to the wake of a great man a couple of days ago, and I wasn't sure what to wear.

My best suit was reserved for the funeral, and my pants on the runner-up didn't fit anymore.

Hey, one of the best things about being a sportswriter is that I don't need more than two suits, but the inevitable sloth that comes with the job tends to eventually cut that number in half.

Of course, as you get older and take on this adult thing, you really should worry more about appearances, in case you run into any big shots. So I was standing there wondering if I could get away with my navy blue Dockers with the navy blue blazer, or whether the black sports coat would work with the black dress pants. 

That's when it hit me that the only big shot who wouldn't care what I was wearing was the guy who was going to be in the casket.

That was the thing about Dan Rooney. He would've just been damn glad to see me.

I'm going to miss that. He made even the guys with one-and-a-half suits feel special. 

Little things mean a lot, but bigger things, like the person and not his possessions, meant everything to Dan. 

I read two columns last week by terrific writers whose theme was that they called him -- in spite of his protestations -- "Mr. Rooney," because they couldn't help but respect the man. But I never had such qualms. He was Dan. Easily.

His son? Now he's Mr. Rooney, but I do call him Art a lot, just because I feel I've learned the ways of Rooney-ville these past 23 years. I call him both sir and friend, and at the wake I called the new patriarch of the Pittsburgh Steelers both.

He was easily Art because of the peace and warmth he exuded even at that trying time, and even after greeting passersby for a solid two hours. But when I introduced my daughter, he was Mr. Rooney. He clearly deserves that respect.

I brought my 17-year-old along to give her a taste of Rooney-ville, as I worried it just might crumble, because, yes, Dan Rooney was that special.

I felt it my first year on the beat, the 1995 season, when he paid for media wives to fly to the Super Bowl in Tempe, Az., on a second charter flight. How that sure helped matters.

Yes, the NFL world was changing, and those types of expenditures for local media were soon to be a thing of the past. The past, though, was guarded closely by a family that learned how to scratch and claw for publicity as it battled the more popular college game throughout the '30s, '40s and '50s. 

The NFL emerged as America's game in the '60s and '70s, and teams realized they didn't need the media so much in the '80s and '90s. But being personable and honest with fans through the media had worked for the Steelers, and so it remained their way.

A trip to Tokyo the next year was also made affordable by the team, as was the following year's trip to Ireland, in particular Belfast, the riot-plagued capital of Northern Ireland to where Dan transported us for a day. 

"You're sitting right now in one of the most dangerous places in the world," the priest told us. 

It was Dan's priority to make it less so, and quietly he has.

In a different way, Dan a few years later quieted an internal war between his coach and director of football operations. Bill Cowher was the coach and he and Tom Donahoe weren't getting along. I remember Donahoe entering the locker room after a particularly difficult loss and telling us why Kordell Stewart should've been the quarterback that day. It seemed odd for a team to operate in this manner, but I thought so highly of Donahoe that I assumed he would win this power struggle because the team was losing.

He didn't win that power struggle. The coach won. Dan Rooney sided with the guy who'd won seven and then six games in successive years. 

The family, who at halftime of upside-down scores would laugh and say, "Don't worry, the other team has coaches, too," in most instances will side with their head coach. It's been that way since Keisling cut Unitas. Cowher rewarded that philosophy with a Lombardi Trophy six years later.

I remember seeing Dan at the coffee pot which we reporters were allowed to use in the front office. It was in April of 2000 after his draft team had selected Plaxico Burress. I told Dan I was surprised, that I had expected them to draft a quarterback, Chad Pennington.

"Jim," he said, "if you wanted to know who we were going to draft, you should've just asked me."

He wasn't joking.

While that was the case back then, the coffee pot and hot gossip were soon off limits to media. New GM Kevin Colbert understood that inside information + internet = losing proposition in the modern era. That familial magic died an inevitable death, but so much of it still remained. 

Like the time I was fired from a radio gig for standing up to a bully. It made headlines. Some in the business thought I had been humiliated, but I never saw it that way. I stood up for myself and my principals, and Dan saw it that way, too. He made a point to tell me so when he walked over to shake my hand at a lunch table filled with my peers. 

I think I was wearing jeans and an old polo that day.

Dan didn't make his way around to the media as often of late. He had lost some mobility. His three-cone time wasn't what it once had been. Stooped over with a cane as he slowly ambled past you in the cafeteria, or in the hall, you surely weren't going to ignore him. But you knew that if you did say hello he was going to stop and give you his full attention. 

Was I worth all of that trouble? 

I think we know the answer to that, but saying hello was never any trouble for Dan. He would come to a full stop and lift his head slowly to greet you and make some of the best small talk you were going to hear that day. 

Sharp till the end. 

And it makes one wonder what happens next. Yes, Art Rooney II is as smart as they come. He gets all of this, the business and the legal side of this massive NFL enterprise. That's most of the battle these days anyway.

But what about the warmth? What about the family? 

Dan Rooney brought that to the organization and it meant so much to the players. Those six Lombardis say as much. So did Troy Polamalu when he tweeted the other day that "We've lost the heart & soul of Steeler Nation."

Can the heart & soul be replaced? 

Of course not.

Can it grow anew?

I don't know. But in one day I experienced a warmth that tells me it's possible. 

I talked with Mr. Roon--, er, Art, about family vacations at the side of his father's casket. We then walked over to Dan's widow, Patricia, who asked earnestly for me to send her my latest article. We chatted briefly with Kevin Colbert, who enthusiastically gave my daughter a tip on a major for college. We saw Omar Khan near the door and I expressed my sympathy for his loss. I imagined it to be profound, and he nodded that it was. I added that I should probably walk out on the street and express my sympathies to passing strangers, since this was a profound loss for everybody. 

He nodded and agreed that it was.

They're burying this great man today. I would buy a new suit, but I'm certain Dan Rooney would scoff at the idea.


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