Talk about perseverance. For 40 years the Pittsburgh Steelers languished in the cellar of the NFL before emerging in the 1970s as one of its greatest franchises, winning a record six Super Bowls since that awakening.
Through those long struggles and eventual triumphs, that heart and soul of the team was its founder and owner, Art Rooney (1901-1988), a Pittsburgh icon known as “The Chief” for his resemblance to Perry White from the 1950s “Superman” TV show.
Though ownership of the Steelers eventually passed to Rooney’s sons, his overwhelming legacy inspired a one-man play about him nearly 15 years after his death. The Chief played before packed houses for seven years at Pittsburgh Public Theater with veteran character actor Tom Atkins as Rooney in Pittsburgh’s answer to Great Moments With Mr. Lincoln.
Set in September 1976, Rooney is preparing to be honored by the Knights of Columbus when he turns to the audience and reflects on his life story, from his hard-scrabble youth in the wards of the Steel City, to his Catholic upbringing and his early experiences with business and sports. Rooney recounts how he dreamed of buying baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates, but how his associations with horse racing and gambling prevented any dealings with Major League Baseball. Instead, he set up a football franchise, although he disputes the widely accepted lore about how he used a $2,500 parlay win to finance his NFL investment.
This DVD captures one of the final performances of the play, offering a fair replication of the experience of live theater if missing a bit of the energy that an audience member can only get from being in the room.
Atkins is extraordinary at evoking the spirit of Rooney, a likable guy proud of his accomplishments but humbled by their impact on anyone else. These are anecdotes from a rough-and-tumble era when sports were still a working-class venture, before television contracts and merchandising took over, Rooney laments.
What emerges is a portrait of a man whose life lesson teaches us that patience is as much an ingredient of success as seizing whatever opportunities pop up along the way.