I was born in the early 70’s and learned to love the Steelers watching their games on a old black and white TV at my great grandparents’ house, sitting on the floor, surrounded by family. The funny thing was almost all my family loved the Steelers, but my great aunt was a Oakland Raiders fan. I have no idea how this happened and I never cared to ask. All I can say is there were some pretty intense conversations and rivalries going on, both on the field and in that living room.
Those Sundays after church are still precious memories, and were vital for my development into a die-hard, Black-and-gold bleeding, Steelers fan. My uncle would tell me about the Rooney family and about the Steelers’ history.
I should acknowledge that my uncle and most of my extended family, including myself, have, in one way or another, worked in the coal industry. Many of the coal mines in the area sold their product directly to the steel mills in Pittsburgh, and, therefore, had cultivated business acquaintances and friendships in the city. Many stories about the charitable nature of Mr. Art Rooney Sr., “The Chief”, and what his family businesses and team meant to the city followed. Word spread about how he treated his fellow man, and reports on how he ran the Steelers organization helped to galvanize the Steelers’ blue-collar reputation.
One of the first stories my uncle told me was about Mr. Rooney keeping his promise to Rocky Bleier about giving him a chance to tryout after he had been seriously injured during the Vietnam War—even though it was unclear if he would ever be able to walk normally again, much less run. We all know how that whole story worked itself out and now Rocky is a beloved character in Steelers lore. I believe this was simply a handshake promise between two men back when a man’s word still meant something, and I feel certain that, if Rocky hadn’t been able to make it back onto the field, the Steelers would have offered him some kind of position in the organization.
I base this belief on how the team has handled similar situations since that time — like keeping Sean Spence on IR for two seasons after his devastating knee injury so he could get the best physical therapy available, thereby giving him his only realistic chance to ever play again. Recently, the team patiently offered support to a troubled and immature young man named Martavis Bryant. This was never more evident than last season when, coming off of a year-long suspension, Bryant struggled to reclaim his identity within the offense and proceeded to voice his displeasure through his Twitter account, all the while receiving poor advice from his girlfriend. The Steelers’ brass recognized what was going on and didn’t overreact to the situation, instead focusing on the player’s long term value to the team and disciplined him accordingly. Now you only need to look at how the Steelers have handled Ryan Shazier’s injury to see the Chief’s values and teachings still at work today.
I understand the NFL is a business, and that fact can’t be overlooked. The Steelers have to deal with free agency and the salary cap just like every other franchise, but the team’s loyalty to their employees is legendary. This has created a foundation of stability that can’t be overstated. I mean seriously, three coaches since 1969? That’s unheard of these days! I believe the Steelers look at their personnel decisions like an old fashioned marriage. When the going gets tough many will tuck tail and run but, if divorce isn’t an option, you’ve got no choice but to work things out together. This mindset permeates the organization and has cultivated a winning atmosphere around the team. Just ask the Browns how difficult this culture is to achieve.
This loyalty and perceived family atmosphere hasn’t been achieved without some difficulties. The Steelers have always been resistant to change. In the early 80s, many of the Steelers’ greats were starting to get a little long in the tooth and their play had started to slip. The front office stayed loyal and most of those greats were able to retire as Steelers. Many of those legendary players had only worn black and gold throughout their entire pro careers. Understand this could never happen today in the age of free agency. The Steelers could have had the foresight to try and stave off the end of the greatest era in professional football history by doing some wheeling and dealing, but that just wasn’t in their DNA.
One hard and fast rule within the Steeler organization is not handling contract negotiations during the season, which has been a sense of frustration for many. They also have refused to overpay for free agents, even their own. They resist the impulse to mortgage the future for the present. This might be an old fashioned way of thinking, but it has served them well in the past. Look no further than the Redskins or the Dolphins for teams that have a more up-to-date view on team development to gauge their rates of success.
My uncle was convinced the Steelers represented the working class man—that they believed in hard work and there weren’t any shortcuts to true success—that a man’s word was his bond and honesty mattered. Mr. Art Rooney Sr. was known to quote the golden rule that you should always treat others as you would want to be treated.
I believe this is still the Steeler Way and it’s why I’m proud to be a member of the Steelers’ family!
Pittsburgh Steelers for life!