They Haven't Always Been the Steelers - But Always the Rooneys'

Pro football was a blue-collar game when Art Rooney bought a franchise in Pittsburgh

OUTSIDE Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium, 50 feet from an entrance gate, stands a blue historical marker.

It tells of a November day in 1892 when the Allegheny Athletic Association paid ``Pudge'' Heffelfinger $500 to play football against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. It was a good move: ``Pudge'' scored the only points of the contest. It was also the first time anyone got paid to play the game - the birth of professional football.

From such humble beginnings, pro football has come a long way. The National Football League, celebrating its 75th season this year, has become a dominant - some would say the dominant - American sport. And, for all its success, it has managed to hold onto a quaint idea in an era of corporate takeovers and multimillion-dollar contracts: the family-owned business. For all but 13 of the NFL's 75 years, a Rooney has been on the Pittsburgh sidelines.

It is game day at Three Rivers Stadium. As usual, Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney is there early, walking around the field, getting a look at the final preparations before the game. Some owners avoid the fans, he says, but ``I don't have any problem with the crowd.''

Dan's father, Art Rooney, founded the Steelers (then the Pittsburgh Pirates) in 1933. Only three other NFL families have longer dynasties: the Maras (New York Giants), the Halases (Chicago Bears), and the Bidwells (Arizona Cardinals). Family ownership is such a grand NFL tradition that the league has rules prohibiting corporate ownership.

Can the family tradition survive?

Joe Horrigan, research director for the Pro Football Hall of Fame, sees strong reasons for its continuation. ``When someone owns a sports franchise like this, it's natural for the family members to grow up within it,'' he says. ``There's nothing like experience when it comes to sport. While it is a business, it's a very unique business.''

For Dan Rooney, the first vivid memories of pro football began at age 5. ``My father used to take me to training camp,'' he recalls. ``My father was never the kind of person who would take you and watch you all day. That's why I have a real good relationship with the players. They would help me do my homework.''

Dan Rooney was president of the club when his father died in 1988. The next generation is already waiting in the wings: Art Rooney II is team secretary and counsel. But elsewhere in the league, the future looks more ominous.

``The anticipation is that it becomes more and more difficult to maintain those franchises, because many, many of them have to be leveraged very highly,'' says Don Weiss, former executive director of the NFL. The cost of buying or starting a team has skyrocketed. Art Rooney paid $2,500 to join the NFL in 1933; last year, the league's newest teams - the (North) Carolina Panthers and Jacksonville (Fla.) Jaguars - went for $140 million apiece.

``I think you will see, sometime in the future, some adjustments made in the ownership policies of the NFL where they can permit over-the-counter companies to hold at least a minor share'' in franchises, Mr. Weiss says. The league has been discussing such a change for several years.

The NFL's current success makes it easy to forget its fragile early years. When the owners came together in 1920 to form what was then known as the American Professional Football Association, they met in a Canton, Ohio, car dealership. From 1933 through 1946, Art Rooney lost money on the Steelers every year. ``He used to say it wasn't the game [that was so hard], it was whether you could make the payroll on Monday,'' his son recalls.

Times were so tough and manpower so short during World War II that the team joined the Philadelphia Eagles in 1943 (the ``Steagles''). A year later, they merged with the Chicago Cardinals (``Card-Pitt''). It was not until the 1950s, especially with the advent of televised games, that the pro teams began to eclipse their college counterparts in popularity.

``Football could not have become a national sport without television,'' says Robert Thompson, associate professor of television at Syracuse University. Fans watching at home generated fans coming to the game. When he came to the game, recalls former New York Giants star Frank Gifford, ``I played before crowds of 9,000 people. When I left the game, [in 1964], Yankee Stadium was sold out for every game.''

The same year Gifford retired, the NFL sold its second package of TV rights to CBS in a two-year, $28.2 million deal. The Rooneys were stunned. The previous TV deal had brought each team $332,000; this one meant just over $1 million per club.

``It came in so high it was hard for us to believe,'' Dan Rooney recalls of his father's reaction. ``He said: `You are going to rue the day. This is going to change the business. It's going to bring all kinds of different interests. The television people are now going to start telling you what to do.' ''

The outside interests came. The demands of television mounted. But the league prospered. The Steelers, who started with five full-time employees, expanded to 40 and eventually 50 full-time staff. The team moved into Three Rivers Stadium in 1970 and sealed itself forever in the hearts and minds of Pittsburghers by winning four Super Bowls during the ensuing decade -- an unprecedented feat at the time.

Pittsburgh may recapture that glory this season. The Steelers' record is 10-3, and they have clinched their division - the first AFC team to do so.

But the more telling step may have come a year ago, when Dan Rooney moved back from the suburbs into an old house in a blue-collar neighborhood of North Pittsburgh. That was the house whose basement held the Steelers' equipment in the early years. It's where his father lived as pro football completed its transformation from a regional, blue-collar game of the industrial Midwest to a national pastime.

``I came back because it was where I was raised,'' Rooney says. ``It was a house of great memories.''

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