Tom Atkins is loved everywhere but in Pittsburgh, we’ve been so lucky to not only have him as a native son, but to have him appear in a one-man show about the life of Pittsburgh Steelers’ founder and owner Art Rooney. The first president of the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1933 to 1974 and the first chairman of the team from 1933 to 1988, Rooney led the kind of life people wrote hard scrabble novels about, rising from the North Side streets, the father of a saloon owner and the second of nine children.
A multi-sport athlete, Rooney was a success in boxing, winning the AAU welterweight belt and trying out for the 1920 Olympic Team, as well as playing minor league baseball and semi-pro football, finally buying the “Hope Harvey” and “Majestic Radio” teams and renaming them the J.P. Rooneys when he bought them as an NFL franchise in 1933. As this story will tell you, a smart racetrack bet won him the money he needed to keep the team.
The Steelers weren’t a success until many years after Rooney bought the team. In those years, he was better known for his skill as an owner and also helping the city of Pittsburgh, helping to start the Penguins, financially supporting the Homestead Grays and owning several tracks.
Tom Foerster, a famous Pittsburgh politician, said of Rooney: “Everyone knew Mr. Rooney was our number one citizen…he did more for this city than R.K. Mellon did for the business community and David Lawrence and any of the mayors who followed him, including Richard Caliguiri, did politically.”
After decades of wanting to be a winning team, Rooney was able to do what some saw as impossible: making the Steelers into a winning team. It was finding the right players. It was hiring coach Chuck Noll. While the Steelers are rebuilding now — this happens, it always does — in my childhood I was blessed to see the team win the 1975, 1978 and 1979 Super Bowls. But most importantly, while “The Chief” was alive, the Steelers franchise felt a little different. A little classier.
Maybe you can guess from this week that despite its foibles, I love where I’m from. Ask my wife — nothing chokes me up more than having to discuss how important Pittsburgh is to me. I’m so honored to be from here because there’s nowhere else I’d want to be from. A place where hard work and being tough have always been prized and yet you still get the door for someone. Hearing Rooney’s Golden Rule — Treat everybody the way you’d like to be treated. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But never let anyone mistake kindness for weakness.” — sums up my belief and why this story is so important to me.
Written by Gene Collier and Rob Zellers, The Chief first played the Pittsburgh Public Theater in 2003, always starring Atkins. It’s an incredible performance, just him on stage, talking to each member of the audience as if they are the only person there.
Directed by Steve Parys and with credits that feature so many of the talented crew members that I’ve been honored to work with in my life in advertising, The Chief is required viewing for all Pittsburgh residents, but if you love football, hearing some interesting stories or just love Tom Atkins, you need to watch it too.