Chuck at the NFL clinic 1993

 

 

 

 

 

 

Art Rooney

UK Black & Gold

 

 

 

 

 

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THOSE SAME OLD STEELERS

Success had finally turned his head...

On the occasion of his Steelers' unparalleled fourth Super Bowl triumph, Charles Henry Noll, the pre-eminent coach in a lot of football history by virtue of his accomplishments and the era in which they were recorded, danced and sipped champagne and smiled and did all the other frivolous things people do when they peer down upon the world from that marvellous vista of total success.

The year before, Noll had leaned close to assistant coach Woody Widenhofer and talked X's and 0's as another such party swirled around him.  After winning his first Super Bowl, it was widely reported Noll had formally shaken hands with his wife, Marianne.  After the second, there was speculation Marianne had gotten a kiss and Noll rewarded himself with a few glasses of fine white wine. But, in the early hours of Jan. 20, 1980 in the shimmering expanse of the Newport Beach Marriott ballroom, Chuck Noll partied.

Escorting his wife from the celebration, Noll ran into a couple of newspaper types.  He looked swozzled.  Not drunk.  To envision Noll drunk is to conjure Bo Derek in a reducing salon or the Pope in a house of ill repute.  No, he was swozzled.  Smile-button face flushed with ebbing excitement, spirits loosened a notch, thinning hair askew.  In total, a likeable man thoroughly pleased with life.

"Vince who?" asked a reporter and longtime Noll antagonist, who was also somewhat swozzled. "Congratulations. You had a hell of a year."  Make that decade.

Charles Henry Noll had a hell of a decade.  Because he did, the Steelers did. Few franchises in the history of games played for money equalled the Steelers of the 1970s. In Pittsburgh, the Sweet, Swinging, Sensational 70s.  Sure, there were the Yankees of the 1920s and the Celtics of the 1960s and the Canadiens of several decades.  And there were the Pittsburgh Steelers of Chuck Noll.  Four Super Bowl triumphs, fashioned in perhaps the most demanding crucible in professional sport. Four Super Bowl rings.  Back there at the turn of the decade, who would've ever thunk it.  Art Rooney's pointy-headed Steelers, those woeful children of scorn, four times the champions of the National Football League, so dominant that Commissioner Pete Rozelle would say one year, "it would be better for he league if another team won" and to Rooney at the next presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, "Art, we have to stop meeting like this."

The snow would swirl around our ears and my old man would stare steadily out at them as they fumbled and stumbled their way to yet another pitiful loss, and he would take a long bite of bourbon from his flask, and he would say "Damn!"  He was the gentlest of men, but when it was over, he would grab me by the jacket and hustle me out of Forbes Field toward the streetcar stop, and anyone who made eye contact with him, would move from our path.  Damn! The price of the tickets took a hunk from a 1940s' paycheck and a man had bills, and Rooney was foisting these stiffs on the public as professionals.  "Why the hell doesn't he get some ballplayers," my old man would ask rhetorically.  He knew the answer. "Too damn cheap."  

Arthur J. Rooney must awaken some mornings wondering where it all went right. For almost four decades, he wore his football team around his neck like a millstone.  Its nickname gradually lengthened, ironically but understandably, to the international symbol of distress...  S.O.S. .....  Same Old Steelers.

A civic embarrassment most noted for historical eccentricity. To wit:

A coach named Johnny Blood, who once misread the schedule and went to Washington to scout the Redskins on the day the Steelers were playing Philadelphia.

An inability to recognise mercurial quarterbacking talent which cost the Steelers the services of, among others, John Unitas, Sid Luckman, Len Dawson and Jack Kemp.

Being originally financed by Rooney's racetrack, and some say poker, winnings.

Having had five coaches in its first seven years, two of whom were later rehired.

Being first nicknamed the Pirates, then due to World War II, the Phil-Pitt Steagles and the Card-Pitts, an amalgamation of the Steeler and Chicago Cardinal clubs quickly and rightfully labelled the Carpets.

And Rooney's quirky decisions, motivated by either a shortage of cash or an abiding sense of honour, which saw him sell the league's best passer without telling his coach and thereby blowing the 1938 championship, transporting his team clear across the country by train because of a promise to an old friend and then returning it just in time for the most critical game of the year and the one which cost it a second title, and his sale and repurchase of the team in 1940.

Ernie Holmes sat on a bed in a tiny room in the barred- door section of Western Psychiatric Hospital.  A week before, after a bizarre incident in which he had shot at truck drivers on two state turnpikes, he had wounded a policeman.

His life was a shamble, he was facing jail, his football career seemed over, he was badly confused. He held to one thought as a judge and a psychologist pondered his future: "Mr. Art Rooney's going to help me.  He's like my father. I love him."

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