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The Pro Game

Art Rooney Jr. remembers

About the Author

Tom Danyluk
Contributing writer

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Posted June 08, 2010 @ 9:59 a.m. ET
By Tom Danyluk

In front of me is the Miami Dolphins' media guide, vintage 1979. The size of a beverage card, but thicker. Cover shot — Delvin Williams, one of Shula's flashiest backs. Williams, who thrived on the crease and cutback, rejoicing the 1,258-yard blowout march of the season before, a Miami record that held for a quarter century.

Inside, the page that interests me most, some 31 years later, is the one that features the club's administrative titles from that era. The non-football types, the business side of things. There are 21 names listed, including team owner Joe Robbie. Robbie is described in his bio as a "Horatio Alger character in Stephen A. Douglas' clothing," all the creative hand-wringing that went into that one. There are two team VPs — his wife Elizabeth (no bio) and son J. Michael.

Zip ahead to today, to the depths of the Dolphins' 2009 guide. Same 16-game schedule, but there are now 102 corporate names on the Miami payroll, including 23 directors and 11 vice presidents. This is for a single football team. It does not include any folks in "football operations." The Browns also have 11 VPs, 23 directors. By comparison, Motorola employs seven vice presidents. McDonald's has five.

I see all these titles and positions and organizational charts, and I think of something Ed Sabol of NFL Films once said. It has stuck with me. He was talking about his retirement. Time had come to move on, he said. The big money had penetrated the game and it all became so serious and the whole thing wasn't the same anymore.

"Back before I became a forgotten treasure," he said, "The game was different. The people were different, which was only natural. That's in business, that's in your life, that's in your home. Everybody changes as time goes on. The coaches were different. They weren't all glued to the headset, they weren't all glued to the clipboards, they were closer to the players.

"It was like the beginning of anything. It was more down to earth. There was more communication, person-to-person. Now you don't have that. It's a different era, I guess."

Innocence is not the wrong word, the death of it. Goodbye to that yellow brick road. I remember going into the Super Bowl in Tampa a few years back, with all the heavy security measures and checkpoints, the serious men in uniforms and their automatic guns in position around the area, glaring into the crowd. SWAT people. And no tailgating allowed. Lord, the heaviness of it! Inside the gates $11 draft beer was offered to the customers.

Yes, the people have changed. The old-time football men have been replaced by a vast sea of organization charts, the directors and marketers and all other executive monikers. These people have no stories from the front. They're businessmen and businesswomen, and they issue their official press releases and lawyer-approved statements and all the other forms of corporate photocopies.

To them the game equals "the product." Stadium seats are known as inventory. The human face of it, what Ed Sabol once embraced, has been blindfolded and led away to some musty storage space, far from the leather-rich offices where the real money is discussed. …

I'm sorry, this whole thing is turning into a rant and it wasn't supposed to be that at all. Time to clear out the boardroom. It was supposed to be about football stories. And I've found some. I just finished chatting with Pittsburgh's Art Rooney Jr.



His title is also VP, but that's just a name because with him it always has been about the pads and helmets. For years Rooney went out and raked the college fields and heard confessions from coaches and gathered players for his father's team. The Director of Personnel, where football was not learned from behind some mahogany desk.

When he was much younger and the Steelers were nothing, a family friend tried to steer him from the toils of scouting. "You don't want that life, Artie. You're a family man. You'll be away from them all the time. Think it over."

"He was right," says Rooney, now 75. "Man, I put a lot of time on the road. I was never home. But I didn't care. I was willing to make the sacrifices. My priority, my passion was that football team. It was like a narcotic to me. I got addicted."

His father, "the Chief," would hand out cigars. Art Jr. hands out stories … fine, aged ones that never lose their taste. Decades of football kept in neat little bundles. His humidor is never locked.

Marion Motley: He was Jim Brown's John the Baptist. By 1955 Motley was a scarred old tank of a runner, gears gnawed to bits, howling and grinding their way toward the boneyard. Few people recall that his final days in battle were spent with the Steelers, not in Cleveland. A sudden comeback bid after a year in retirement.

"We were running out of players," Rooney says, "so we signed him to see what was left. [Former Steelers DB] Jack Butler told me (Motley) was well-liked on the team but really out of gas by the time he got here. He only lasted seven games.

"I remember one time when Motley made a crack about our team, saying that playing against the Steelers was like running downhill. Our players and the press felt they could nail him on that one.

"However, Marion was quick-witted. He talked his way out of it. He said that many of our games at Forbes Field were played while the Pirates pitcher's mound was still raised, so he had a real advantage at those times because he was indeed running down a hill. We all laughed at that one."
Jack Ham: The thinking man's linebacker. Not a destroyer, not a muscled-up pile driver, but a maestro of pursuit angles and balance and slipknot tackling.

"To this day I still refer to Ham the same way — the perfect player," Rooney says. "One year he was playing in the Pro Bowl and Noll was coaching the AFC team. One of our scouts was in the hotel elevator with a bunch of AFC defensive players. Some of them were bitching and moaning about having to learn Noll's defensive scheme for the game. That damn Noll. We can't play this kind of defense. It's impossible to do some of this stuff!

"One of the other players spoke up and said, 'It'll work.'

"They piped back, 'what do you mean, it'll work? How's it gonna work?'

"He looked at them and said, "Ham."

"They paused for a moment. … 'Yeah, it'll work.'"

Vince Lombardi: Hell to beat, but very well admired around the Steelers' organization.

"Lombardi — very much the Rooney-type guy" Art says. "No nonsense, a lot like Noll there. And very Catholic, a bit like Noll there. Very gruff — not like Noll at all."

One year, the league scheduled its offseason meetings in Hawaii, and a number of the attendees decided to take a dip in the Pacific Ocean.

"We were riding the waves at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel. Lombardi was there. He looked right at me and said, 'Rooney, you have the biggest opu on this beach.' The lifeguard was this young Hawaiian guy, and he was petrified that the great coach would say something like that.

"He should look in the mirror,' the kid said to me. 'His opu is bigger than yours.' Hey, I was just thrilled that Lombardi knew who I was."

"Later that week I told Shula about it. Don laughed. He said that if the great Lombardi had heard what that kid said about his belly, Vince would've started doing sit-ups right there on the beach!"

Ernie Stautner: Steelers at Browns, ages ago, the hip-hoorays of that city's old Municipal Stadium. Stautner, a mighty tackle, is roaring, shooting hell into the Cleveland offensive wall. Suddenly, an injury. It cuts him down.

"Stautner had to come out of the game," Rooney remembers. "He seemed to be hurt pretty badly and he wasn't shaking it off. So at halftime they decided to give him a shot of Novocain. Well, whatever they gave him it wasn't Novocain. Turned out to be something like sodium pentothal."

Stautner kept rolling in and out of consciousness. Panic. What to do? How many fingers, Ernie? What's your mother's name?

"Finally the doctor hollered out, 'Call a priest!' Eleven of them showed up. I mean, it was Sunday. Weren't they supposed to be in church? Finally one of the priests took Ernie by the hand and said, 'Son, do you wish to confess?'

"Stautner looked up at him and said, 'Father … listen good, because I'm goin' fast. I only have time for the highlights …' "

Sid Gillman: Chuck Noll forever wears the stamp of being a Paul Brown disciple, but it didn't all come from Brown. Noll's earliest coaching checks were cashed as a young Gillman defensive assistant, in year No. 1 of the old American Football League. It was 1960, and there was El Sid and his staff, furiously scheming and ramping up the new L.A. Chargers. They reached the title game that year. They tasted winning, Noll always savored that taste.

"Chuck brought two things with him from the Gillman school," Rooney explains. "The first was weight lifting — taking smaller players who still had a football frame and turning them loose in the weight room. Muscle work.

"The second was film study. Gillman was just nuts about it. Noll told me the assistant coaches would spend hours and hours, cutting and splicing and winding. They'd take the film sections and drop them into waste baskets, which were all tagged and separated by position. Well, one night the cleaning guy came by. The waste cans were full …

"After that they switched to brown paper bags, all very clearly marked — Do Not Throw Away."
Pete Rozelle: January of 1980. The Steelers are arming for their sixth AFC title game in eight years. Lord, what an empire it has been. The league gave a party the eve before the game. Champagne and martinis with ice chips. The commissioner, naturally, arrived on time, shirt crisply pressed.

"All night I noticed that the Rozelles were sitting alone," Rooney says. "Of course, people would go by and say hello and slap him on the back but nobody stayed to talk. I remember when Bert Bell was commissioner, how there was always a crowd around him, that big personality of his, always telling stories. Instead there was Pete and his wife, alone for almost the entire evening.

"I started to feel sorry for him, so I walked over to make a little conversation. As I approached the table, Pete, out of the clear blue, says, 'It is always proper etiquette to congratulate the chef on a wonderfully prepared meal.'

"Huh? I had no idea what he was talking about. The food had been just OK. His comment went right over my head.

"But at the end of the night, as I'm walking out the door it finally dawned on me. I understood what he was saying.

"I was the personnel guy; we were about to go to our fourth Super Bowl in six years. Pete Rozelle had just paid me one hell of a compliment!"


Tom Danyluk is an award-winning freelance writer based in Chicago. His story "Nothing artistic about Raiders' Week Nine debacle" was named Best Column in the Professional Football Writers Association's annual writing contest for 2009.


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