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Rooney: A Sporting Life Shines Light on Rooney’s Life

Rooney: A Sporting Life
Rob Ruck, Maggie Jones Patterson and Michael Weber
Bison Books (September 2011)

Rooney: A Sporting Life transports the reader from the present-day NFL of free agency, obnoxiously-large contracts and money-hungry ownership to a time when owners met in casual settings and were crazy about football.

Now the above statement may be an exaggeration of the current state of the NFL. Many changes put into place over the past several decades have benefited the league immensely based on the acceleration of its success. But Rooney: A Sporting Life, written by Rob Ruck, Maggie Jones Patterson and Michael Weber and based on the life of Pittsburgh Steelers owner Art Rooney, reminds of a time when players worked in the cities they played and were truly a fabric of the city because they stayed there throughout their football careers.

The authors begin the 704-page book at the very beginning, with Rooney’s great-grandfather’s journey from Ireland to Ebbw Vale, Wales and Rooney’s grandparents move to Canada before planting roots in Pittsburgh, starting a legacy in Steel Country they could not have expected. The book is a very detailed and well-researched oral journey through the life of the Rooneys.

It is clear through the authors’ description the immense impact Art Rooney made on the city of Pittsburgh. Though the city was a perennial football loser until the 1970s when Chuck Noll took over as head coach, Rooney stuck with the team and kept it afloat. It was Rooney’s personality and fortitude that encouraged much-needed changes in the league at its inception. The changes were not necessarily beneficial to the Steelers franchise; in fact, it sometimes hurt the franchise. But Rooney knew it was better for the league as a whole and its long-term success, so he pushed for it.

Rooney’s morals could sometimes be detrimental to his team. He occasionally stuck with coaches or players too long because they had become friends and were nice guys who he truly cared about. He hired his friends at times, which made for sticky situations. It wasn’t until Art Rooney’s son, Dan Rooney took over more of the business aspect of the franchise that the team really took off as winners.

Dan Rooney and his brother, Art Jr., who took over scouting, made a huge difference in the success of the franchise, but beyond winning games, the reputation of the organization and the love the city had for the team had everything to do with Art Rooney.

It was also interesting to read of Rooney’s true passion: gambling on horses. The man was a good luck charm every time we went to the betting window at the track. Later on in his life, his other sons ran horse farms and kept track of that business for him. But before he reached old age, horseracing was a true passion for Art Rooney.

The authors make the point in the book, but Rooney could have made a lot more money than he did had he focused on the horseracing business. He had a real feel for the success of a horse, which is what made his betting so lucrative. But instead, he put his money into a love he had developed at a young age.

Rooney: A Sporting Life, in going through the history of the Rooney clan, touches on the young life of Art Rooney, including his playing days as a football and baseball player. He could have gone far with his baseball career had he not sustained some injuries, and he co-owned a boxing facility that showcased fights of semi-big-name fighters. But his love of football was born in the sandlots, where he played and eventually bought a team, which became the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933. The Steelers were born.

Rooney didn’t always make the popular decision, but he made the one he thought was best and the one he felt would benefit the most people. As the years went on, the league was changing in a way it makes clear in the book Rooney was not necessarily crazy about. Because he was one of the few owners left that truly cared about the game and not the profit.

But this outlook and way of doing business was not just business for Rooney. His approach to the team was his approach to life, which is why a town mourned when Rooney passed away in 1988. This wholehearted, good-natured family man was influential in all walks of life. He was one of the first owners to employ black players, was friends with other league owners, politicians and others alike. His reputation and powerful aura alluded no one.

Rooney: A Sporting Life is just a piece of football history, but a binding package of memories of a man few mistook for anything less than adoring and who is revered more than most other figures in history.

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