Steelers versus Patriots, new Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.—the end of the line. I'm running on fumes, vitamin C and Red Bull, but when I see Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher's awesome jaw before the game, it perks me right up. I ask the Steelers' excitable leader if he still gets the opening-kickoff tingles. "Absolutely," he answers. "When you lose that, it's time to get out."
There are lots of lifers in the NFL, but none more confirmed than Cowher's boss, 70-year-old Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The man has as much right to strut as anyone in football, but in an era of increasingly high-profile owners, Rooney operates without a whiff of pretense. You cannot find his bio in the team's media guide, and he still walks to home games from his North Side residence, mingling with the fans who share his passion for the game that he's helped to shape.
Last month, for one of the few times in his life, Rooney dropped his name to get some preferential treatment. He was piloting his Beechcraft Bonanza from training camp in Latrobe, Pa., back to Pittsburgh when an electrical failure put him in peril. He called 911 from his cellphone and was patched through to the Allegheny County Airport's control tower. "I told them who I was," he says, "but the guy didn't believe me for the longest time."
Just after sundown Rooney crash-landed the plane safely in a grass field and walked away unscathed. The next day he flew another aircraft back to Latrobe. He was far more fortunate than the passengers on United Flight 93, who 11 months earlier went down in a field about 30 miles southeast of where Rooney landed his crippled plane. Remembering the memorial service last September that he, Cowher and the Pittsburgh players attended, Rooney chokes up with emotion. It's Monday night, the start of another season. Rooney knows how lucky he is to be here.