Farewell, Mr. Rooney

Upon the death of Steelers owner Dan Rooney, we reached out to a group of players and friends to get their personal memories of a man who shaped the lives of so many in Pittsburgh and beyond.

Hines Ward
Wide Receiver (1998–2011)

What Dan Rooney meant to the hundreds of Pittsburgh Steelers players whose lives he touched over the years is tough to put into words. We all called him Poppa Rooney, because he really was like a father figure to so many of us.

I’ll always remember getting drafted in 1998, and walking through the doors at Three Rivers Stadium. One of the first people I saw was Mr. Rooney, and when I shook his hand that initial time I kind of shook it gingerly. I was cautious, for whatever reason. Well, he looked at me for a second, and then he had me do it all over. So we tried again — it was like a redo. That second time around we had a nice, firm handshake, and he looked me square in the eyes, and then he just talked to me. That encounter made an impact on me. I didn’t grow up with my father, so I learned little life lessons from subtle things like that. And, you know what? That’s one of the first things I taught my son as a kid: When you meet someone, shake their hand firmly, look at them in the eye and speak clearly. So there are values he instilled in me that I’m passing down within my family.

Keith Srakocic/AP Images

Probably my favorite memory of Mr. Rooney dates back to early 2006. Six months before I had held out from the first few weeks of training camp in Latrobe, and when I reported I apologized to him for any negative attention I might have brought on the team by holding out. Mr. Rooney was just so wonderful about the whole thing. “It’s over with now, Hines,” he said. “Forget about it. Just go out and help us win the Super Bowl.” When we beat the Seahawks to win our fifth Lombardi Trophy, I was named Super Bowl MVP. I still remember seeing him on the field afterward and just sprinting up to him and giving him a big ol’ hug while the confetti was flying everywhere. It was a moment of pure joy for both of us, and I’ll never forget it.

Jerome Bettis
Running Back (1996–2005)

Win or lose, one thing you could always count on after a Pittsburgh Steelers game was Mr. Rooney coming into the locker room to tell you he appreciated your effort out on the field. It wasn’t just every once in a while, or after big games. It was every game, like clockwork.

And when Mr. Rooney showed his appreciation, it couldn’t have been more genuine. You could tell he cared deeply about you when he looked you in the eye and said, “Thank you.”

Even more wonderful, though, was that he didn’t just care deeply about his players. He cared about our families, too. It was as though we were all part of his own family, and he was always looking out for us. If he could help you out in any way, he was going to help you — and sometimes in ways that you never would’ve expected.

I remember at one point during my second or third year with the Steelers Mr. Rooney called me into his office. I wasn’t sure what was going on, and then when I got in there he asked me about my parents. He said that he had heard my mother and father attended every game, even when we were on the road, and he asked me if that was true. When I told him it was, he smiled and paused for a second. “I’d like them to have better seats, Jerome,” he said. “I want them to have my seats. They’re part of the family. And I want to make sure they’re taken care of.”

Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

I remember leaving his office that day and thinking, Wow, that kind of thing is not supposed to happen in real life. But that’s the type of person he was. He wanted to do that for my family. I didn’t ask him to get some good tickets for my folks because they were sitting way up in the nosebleed seats on the road. He did it because he genuinely cared about us.

From that day forward, for every road game my parents sat a few rows behind the team bench. And that meant that I could always find my mother and father in the crowd.

Mr. Rooney brought us together in that way for no other reason than because he knew it would be something we’d appreciate. His kindness truly knew no bounds.

Ryan Shazier
Linebacker (2014–Present)

When you’re a Steeler, you get used to winning. It’s part of the tradition here. But in the NFL, you’re going to have some really rough days. It’s inevitable. There have been so many times when I’ve walked into the facility after a loss, and my body was hurting, and I was in such a terrible mood….

And then I’d see this older gentleman in a nice suit, with his white hair and glasses, walking towards me.

And I’d just smile every time.

Mr. Rooney could change your day just by talking to you for a minute.

“Ryan, how are your Buckeyes doing?” he’d say. “How’s your family doing? Do you need anything?”

You know, some people say stuff like that, and it’s just small talk. You can see in their eyes that they’re just waiting to leave and move on with their day. But Mr. Rooney wasn’t like that at all. He genuinely cared about how your Buckeyes were doing, or how your family was doing, or how you were feeling that morning.

It didn’t matter if you were a veteran or a rookie, or even a complete stranger off the street. Mr. Rooney treated everybody the same. You would never know that he was the owner of the NFL’s greatest franchise from the way that he carried himself.

On the night I was drafted by Pittsburgh, Mr. Rooney asked me a question that has stuck with me. He said, “Ryan, are you ready to be a Steeler?”

I said, “Yes, sir.”

He said, “You know, it means a lot to wear that jersey. There’s a lot of tradition and a lot of responsibility that comes with it. Not everybody can be a Steeler.”

I didn’t know exactly what he meant at the time.

But now I know. Every time I saw Mr. Rooney at the facility, his attitude and kindness reminded me of what it meant.

Mr. Rooney, you were the prime example of what it means to be a Steeler, and you changed so many people’s lives. You’ll always be in my heart.

Ronald C.Modra/Sports Imagery

Cameron Heyward
Defensive End (2011–Present)

If I know one thing about Mr. Rooney, I know that he would not want today to be a sad day. I always felt like his entire mission in life was to make people feel better. And how many people in this world can you say that about?

I remember when I got hurt last season, and I was rehabbing, Mr. Rooney was going through some physical therapy of his own. He came up to me one day and shook my hand and looked me in the eye, and said, “How are you doing, Cam?”

I said, “I’m coming along, Mr. Rooney.”

He kept his handshake firm, and he kept looking me in the eye, and he said, “You know, Cam, we always have your back.”

It’s hard not to get emotional when I think about that today.

Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Mr. Rooney was so thoughtful and compassionate in the way he approached everybody. He was a great, honest, caring human. If you spoke to him once, you walked away from the conversation feeling like you were special to his heart. That will be his legacy. And what better legacy can you have?

I know that Mr. Rooney’s father (The Chief) and my own father (Ironhead) are up in heaven welcoming him to a better place today.

Farewell, Mr. Rooney. You were a once-in-a-lifetime person.

Thomas Tull
Friend and Pittsburgh Steelers part owner

When I first met Mr. Rooney in 2005, it was like meeting the pope. Actually, who am I kidding? It was even bigger than that. As a lifelong Steelers fan, I had idolized him since I was a kid. And when we met, he turned out to be all that I had imagined and more. I was extraordinarily fortunate because Mr. Rooney and I hit it off right away and built a very close relationship over the years.

One thing he’d always come back to during our conversations was the importance of doing the right thing. I used to go to him for life advice, and any time I was having difficulty with a decision he would sit me down and say something that will stick with me for as long as I live. “Thomas,” he’d say, “life is a series of decisions you make that add up to your reputation. Do the right thing.”

Craig Barritt/Getty Images

He just always had this incredible moral compass grounded in compassion and consideration and kindness — traits that I saw him display every time I was around him.

One day when we met up a couple of years ago, he was wearing a Steelers pin on his jacket, so I complimented him on it. A second later he literally took it off and handed it to me. Then, three weeks later, I’m at the facility on the South Side, and he’s wearing a Steelers tie. Just in passing I say, “Great tie, Mr. Rooney.” He turns his head and looks at me for a second … and then he takes off his tie right there in the hallway and he gives it to me. He wouldn’t take no for an answer.

I felt terrible about it, but that was just him. He’d absolutely give you the shirt off his back if he thought it would make you happy. And because of that, and everything else he represented, Mr. Rooney was universally loved. Steelers players going all the way back to Joe Greene and Franco Harris, up through Ike Taylor and Cam Heyward absolutely adored him. And I’ve never heard a single person say a negative word about him. Even fans on the road showed him love!

It’s funny, Mr. Rooney always wanted me to call him “Dan.” He’d tell me that every time I saw him. But I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. He was always “Mr. Rooney” to me. I could never call him Dan, but I was so proud to call him my friend.

He was one of the most special human beings I’ve ever met. I will miss him dearly.