Friday, January 6, 2017

Book review: "Dan Rooney - My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL"

By the time the 1955 National Football League draft reached its ninth round, all the big college stars had been taken. But 23-year-old Dan Rooney, who was helping make draft selections for the Pittsburgh Steelers, saw potential in a skinny quarterback out of the University of Louisville named Johnny Unitas.

"We gotta get this guy now because we don't want him playing against us," Rooneysaid.

Following Rooney's advice, the Steelers drafted Unitas, who would become one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. But he never played at all for the Steelers.

Steelers coach Walter Kiesling thought Unitas was "too dumb to play" in the NFL, Rooney recalls in his autobiography, "Dan Rooney - My 75 Years With the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL."

Kiesling never gave Unitas a chance in training camp and cut him before the season started. A year later, Unitas signed with the Baltimore Colts and began a stellar career in which he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player four times.

This is one of many anecdotes Rooney tells in this enjoyable book. While not perfect, the book has enough going for it to qualify as a must-read for hardcore Steeler fans and a good choice for anyone with a interest in the history of the NFL or the City of Pittsburgh.

Rooney has a unique position in the NFL. He has spent virtually his entirely life immersed in professional football. His father, Art Rooney, was the original owner of the Steelers, and Dan Rooney started early working with and helping manage the team. Dan became president of the team in 1975 and took over the organization after his father died in 1988.

"Football is in my blood," he said.

Rooney describes his early years growing up in Pittsburgh, becoming a high school football star  while simultaneously working in the Steelers organization. At that time, the National Football League was a minor sport that struggled to attract players, let alone fans. During World War II, Rooney recalls, there were so few available men to play that the Steelers temporarily merged with the St. Louis Cardinals, becoming the unfortunately named "Card-Pitts."

Professional football grew in fits and spurts, but the Steelers were rarely successful on the field. One of the big problems was that his father simply hired his friends as coaches. Another problem, Dan Rooney says, is that his father was more of a baseball fan than a football fan. Yes, the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers preferred to watch baseball.

The book is filled with fond, warm memories. Rooney doesn't dwell on the negative, and sometimes glosses over issues when you wish he would tell you more.  He tells stories about his family, crashing his private plane, the NFL's compromise selection of Pete Rozelle as commissioner, the merger with AFL and personal clashes with Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis.

He wanders occasionally off track to tell us the biographies of players, which we could get anywhere. The book is best when he tells his personal story.  The book has two co-authors, Andrew E. Masich and David F. Halaas, so it's hard to say how much of the writing was actually done by Rooney.

If you like stories on old-time football, here are two other books you might enjoy: "That First Season" by John Eisenberg, the story of Vince Lombardi's first year coaching the Green Bay Packers, and "Instant Replay,", Jerry Kramer's diary of the Packers 1967 championship season.

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