By Andrew Conte, author of The Color of Sundays, 2017 Blue River Press
A few months after Bill Nunn Jr. died, his former boss Dan Rooney saw me at Steelers headquarters one day, smiled and told me, “Well that worked out perfectly for you.”
It had taken me months to resume work on the book, The Color of Sundays, after Nunn died, and I was unsure what Rooney meant. “How could that be?” I responded.
“Well, he told you all of his stories,” Rooney said, “and now that he’s dead, you can say whatever you want.”
He laughed as he said it, and I joined with him. It was true that Nunn had been particular about what I intended to write about him, shying away from all of the attention the book was sure to bring.
In the days, weeks and years ahead, much will be written about Rooney too, now that he has died, Thursday at age 84. The highlights are many: He transformed the team started by his father, Art Rooney Sr., from a losing franchise into one with more championships than any other. In later life, he served a meaningful role as the United States’ ambassador to Ireland. And, of course, he privately loved his large family and a wide circle of friends.
His largest legacy, however, might be the impact he had on integrating professional football and life. One year after the Steelers had formed in 1933, the league owners unofficially collaborated to remove blacks from the game. Art Rooney had gone along with it, and the Steelers lost their one black player, Ray Kemp.
Art Rooney had many African American friends and spent much time in the Hill District with people such as Gus Greenlee, a numbers runner who started the Pittsburgh Crawfords Negro leagues team.
Still, his son, Dan, seemed to feel the need to atone for what the Steelers and the league had done in those early years. He had seen the injustice – and the impracticality – of keeping blacks from the National Football League.
Dan had made the decision to hire Nunn, who used his knowledge of historically black colleges and universities to discover African American players who otherwise might never have found their way to professional sports. I make the case that Rooney’s decision and Nunn’s contribution, more than any other, turned the Steelers of the 1970s into four-time Super Bowl champions.
Later in life, when the player ranks were fully integrated, Dan Rooney realized that the coaching ranks remained racially divided. He was among the team owners who pushed for change, leading to the “Rooney Rule,” a measure requiring teams to interview at least one African American candidate before hiring a new coach.
The league had to acknowledge it had a problem and then take steps to address it – rather than just ignoring reality. The rule also led to the Steelers taking a closer look at an African American coaching candidate, Mike Tomlin, before hiring him in 2007. He has led the team to two Super Bowls, winning one.
In the end, no matter what people say about Dan Rooney, his legacy will endure as someone who pushed football – and society – to acknowledge its shortcomings on race and to do better.
Andrew Conte is the author of is the author of the best-selling book Breakaway: The Inside Story of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Rebirth and the Silver Benjamin Franklin Award-winning book, The Color of Sundays. Andrew is a graduate of Dickinson College and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.