As the Philadelphia and South Jersey region either celebrates or braces for the NFL Draft, depending on your perspective (and address!), it is undeniable that football is today a national passion bordering on obsession and dominates everything from Thanksgiving to ubiquitous Super Bowl parties to coverage of complex legal trials. Whether debates over tax-funded stadiums, race relations after the O.J. Simpson incidents, or protests over police brutality by current stars, the competing interests of economics, politics, and entertainment continue to tussle for their own priority and elbow-room when it comes to the gridiron. Proving the point, this week the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, left the ongoing controversies of life in D.C. to return to his native Pittsburgh to lay to rest one of today’s titans of industry, devoted Catholic Daniel Rooney, the primary owner and chairman of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Rooney was the product of local Catholic schools in Western Pennsylvania — North Catholic High School and Duquesne University. The son of legendary NFL figure Art Rooney and father of nine children, he is probably most widely remembered outside of Pittsburgh for two things — his role as Ambassador to Ireland from 2009-12 and the “Rooney rule,” which mandates that open coaching and senior football executive job searches in the NFL need to include candidates from diverse racial backgrounds. Art and Dan Rooney are one of only two father-son combinations to be recognized in the NFL Hall of Fame, the New York Giants’ Tim and Wellington Mara being the other. (Coincidently, they were also dedicated Catholics closely associated with Fordham University, as was Vince Lombardi for whom the championship trophy is named).
In his funeral homily, Cardinal Wuerl commented: “How appropriate that this funeral liturgy is being offered as the whole Christian world celebrates Easter — the Resurrection of Jesus from the dead….Whether he was Ambassador Daniel Rooney, Hall of Fame Pittsburgh Steelers President, or just Dan, he reflected so well the qualities of this part of the world. He worked hard, he was a loyal friend, a good neighbor, he took seriously his duties to his family, his obligations to the community, his commitment to the Steelers, his love of the game, the need to be straightforward, honest and caring. He was a Pittsburgher. He was the best of us. We can with the eyes of faith envision your husband, your father, your grandfather, your colleague, your coworker, your team leader, your partner, your fellow parishioner, your friend, today walking humbly but upright, forward and unflinching, smiling and triumphant into that great and everlasting end zone. His Hail Mary’s have been answered. The victory is his. This time not with another ring — he already had six. But with what Saint Paul describes as the crown of victory for the life well lived. For that victory, he receives now the crown of everlasting life.”
I am sure that Dan Rooney was far from a perfect man, as are all of us who strive to be holy, but can never be, wholly. Prudential judgments in the face of controversies are a necessary facet of life, and their consequences are often profoundly complicated. I do not doubt he faced many such moments. And as a loyal Eagles fan, I know well that his teams broke a few hearts along the way. But we can also be thankful for the joy, respect and equal opportunity he strove to provide for so many, and pray that this daily Mass communicant now receive the just reward due to a tireless laborer (cf. 1 Tim 5:17).
Michael M. Canaris, Ph.D., a former resident of Collingswood, teaches at Loyola University in Chicago.