Saturday, October 3, 2009

Hail to the Chief

I want to switch gears this morning. As I do every time I meet a new group of people, I amuse many of them with my fervor for the Steelers. They laugh at my use of "we" when talking about the team (Greg hates that I do that), my superstitions (too many to list) and my general tendency to decorate any office environment as though I am about to tail gate at Heinz Field. So, with tomorrow's all important game with the Chargers (sporting my fantasy qb I am sad to say), I thought I would try and explain it. I don't think too many people know the whole story actually and it's worth telling in my opinion. Most people know the Reader's Digest version, the answer I can say in passing at the grocery store, or gas station, or movie theatre. Because that's the thing about being a member of the Steeler Nation, you are never outside its borders. We're every where. And for a naturally shy individual, I have found that wearing Steeler gear has done my introductions for me and generally in a good way. Occasionally I get the jerk Raider fan who says something caustic, but even that is fun. Invariably though, since I'm a long way from the Nation's capital, I get asked, "Are you from there?" Depending on the circumstances, I'll take the time to explain that, while I was raised in Montana, my parents were from just outside of there. Even that's not really the whole story. Dad, in fact, was from Harrisburg, but went to a little teacher's college in California, Pa. Mother's family is from Washington, Pa, which is between Pittsburgh and Morgantown, WV. If pressed for where they hail from, that's the spot I name because they met at a soda shop there while Mother was in nursing school. If I'm really rushed, I'll occasionally fudge and just say yes. But, if there's time, I'll go on to explain that Dad was a coach in Intermediate School (which I would know as Junior High, but Marissa would have called Middle School) before entering the military and he raised me to be a football fan. That part is true. He wanted me to know and love the game. I always remember my parents giving me a little Pocket Paperback that Mother picked up in line at the grocery store explaining referee signals. It seemed totally random to me at the time, I don't remember asking about referees before then, maybe I did. The thing is, it worked. I was sort of amused with it, and would sit on the couch with my little book and follow along with the games on Saturday and Sunday. But, Dad did not raise me to be a Steeler fan. His philosophy was that he didn't care who won, he just wanted a good game. And, he gravitated a little more toward college, I think, although he watched it all.

No, a series of events drew me finally and irrevocably to the Steelers. After I took my first tentative steps into football fandom, I professed my love for the Detroit Lions. Don't laugh, remember how old I am. Back then, they were actually good (or at least not as bad) and on a lot in our market. The thing about growing up in the 60's and 70's in a rural state is that our television feed came from somewhere else. We got stations from Provo, Denver and Chicago, home of the Bears. And, that was back in the day when you watched whatever game the network decided you were going to watch. The Lions played the Bears and both enjoyed a national following at the time. I was a Leo, and Mother had a brother who worked for Ford in Detroit, so it just seemed natural that I would gravitate to that team. I have to say, thank heavens something changed somewhere along the line to pull me away from that allegiance. I think the main thing that happened was that I was 9 at the time. I just got bored with them. Sitting for three hours at a stretch watching a bunch of men do something I didn't fully understand was just not for me at the time.

But, football was always the background in our house in the fall and early winter. My parents had large gatherings centered around the big game days; Thanksgiving, the New Year's Day bowls. For me, the sound of football is like no other. It's reminiscent of friendly gatherings, crisp days with a fire crackling in the fireplace and good hot food. Since I was generally the only child in the group, I would hang around those big gatherings and try to pay attention to what they were paying attention to so they would include me. Gradually, just by osmosis, I began to pick up the basics. And then along came the Steelers of the 70's and that Steel Curtain defense. I'm here to tell you that defense is the easier side of the ball to understand. And I understood the Steel Curtain well enough. Be physical. Stuff the other team face first into the turf. I got that as a kid. I liked how they attacked the ball, like it was a magnet, piling onto it and whatever poor sap who happened to have it. Then I became aware that these guys represented the area where my parents had come from and most of their relatives still were. That seemed like a good reason to keep watching them. And, by that time, they were often on. They won their first Super Bowl by the time I was a teenager, with a slightly more developed attention span, so I began to notice their offense too. Lynn Swan, graceful like his name. John Stallworth with those amazing ballet-like catches along the sideline. Terry Bradshaw, with his awshucks country twang and easy going manner that made him a national star. Franco, handsome and quiet and really powerful. And then, Rocky Bleier, who's last name was just one letter off from mine. Yeah, I liked these guys, but I was still just a casual fan. Then, something sort of odd happened.

Which was, that I actually went to Sunday School one day. That was odd because I hated Sunday School. Dad insisted I go, but he never went to church, except on the occasional Easter when Mother forced him to. It seemed hypocritical. I had been going for years, so I'd heard all the same stories about Noah and the flood, the whole Moses saga, Jesus in the marketplace, Jesus feeding the masses, Jesus turning water into wine. The thing about the Prodigal Son got a lot of play. There are only so many stories Protestants tell, and I had heard them all. I didn't click with the group. We all knew one another, of course. There was only one high school in town, but, they weren't my friends, and I wasn't theirs, so I sat by myself and was lonely. I leaned toward Old Testament stories, which set me apart even further, because that was in the day when Joseph and the Technical Color Dreamcoat and Jesus Christ Superstar were popular. Jesus was a rock star, and I liked old dusty stories like Elijah. It was miserable. So, Dad would drop me off, I would walk inside to the foyer, watch out the window until he drove off and then walk around the historic neighborhood for the next hour and look at large, graceful old houses. Why I didn't that day, I have no idea. Maybe it was too cold or snowing too hard, but I went upstairs, took my seat and listened to the day's lesson.

Which was about Rocky Bleier. My ears perked up. For those of you who don't know, he actually is a inspirational character. He was the Steeler running back during those glory years and has four rings to show for it. But, the fact that he was able to walk on the field at all is amazing. He was seriously wounded in Vietnam after being drafted following his rookie year and had to fight to learn to walk again, selling insurance to make ends meet while he re-habbed until he miraculously not only learned to walk but played again for the Steelers when they powered there way to all those Super Bowls. On that Sunday, the lesson was to take his experience and teach us perseverance and faith in the face of incredible odds. I took something else away from it though. For me, maybe because I already knew Rocky's basic story, was what Art Rooney did for him. Mr. Rooney, beloved, cigar chomping owner of the Steelers since 1932, stood by him during all of that. He left him a spot on the squad when he didn't have to. There are other stories like that. Hundreds of them. The one I remember was when Gabe Rivera, a back out of Baylor, was paralyzed in an auto accident after his rookie season in the late 80's, Mr. Rooney paid out his contract. He had no obligation to do so, but it was the right thing to do, so he did it. Anyway, not to make a long post longer, suffice it to say, as I sat and listened to the teacher tell the story of Rocky, I was struck more by the fact that none of it would have happened without the simple support of his team owner. I'm not even sure Rocky realizes that fully. I was old enough by then to know what big business football was. What he did was amazing, I thought, and I drowned out the rest and sat there contemplating that fact. I walked out of that room curious about Art Rooney, and what I've learned has made me a Steeler fan for life. I'm not actually sure if I ever went back to Sunday School, but I learned the one lesson I think I was meant to learn.

I love The Chief, as he was known (but I don't think very much to his face). He is the kind of man I want to emulate. Hard living and fun loving, he never lost sight of what made him successful, and that was in the details, from the grounds crew to the very city that gave him a home. He loved and was loyal to all of it. And he was rewarded in kind. We all love him. He deserves my love, he's earned it. I don't want to see my team do anything but win, but I'll stand by them no matter what (cussing as I do it probably) because of what they represent. The Rooney family, although recently having to dilute ownership a bit, still own the team and son Dan Rooney and now grandson Art Rooney, Jr. have run it as much as they can like The Chief would have. It's a old school ownership in a Jerry Jones world. But, they hang on to those values. The team is like family. And we are members. It's not like Green Bay where the fans really are owners, but Art Rooney, Sr. is up there somewhere happy that I say "we". He smiles whenever I do it.

Learn more about my beloved Mr. Rooney, you'll love him too:


  1. I think what is interesting about this story and what appeals to me, is the lesson that you learned and that really should have been taught, that being, be a good human being and do what's right especially when you don't have to. The face of adversity and faith is fine. But, really the thing most people in this world need to learn and keep learning on a daily basis is - do the right thing, especially when you don't have to. Old school - count me in.

  2. FYI -- It is Art Rooney II that is currently running the team. Art Rooney Jr. is Art Rooney II's uncle and one of the owners of the team.