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ROONEY LEARNED stewardship from his iconic father, who died in 1988 and is enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Dan was an undersized halfback at Pittsburgh's North Catholic High who began attending Steelers games with his mother at Forbes Field when he was five. At 14 he was a ball boy at training camp. By his mid-30s he was essentially running the team, and it was he who oversaw the building of the Noll dynasty. He has been a powerful voice in the NFL for three decades, so much so that the league's mandate on minorities interviewing for head coaching jobs is called the Rooney Rule. Says Mara, "When Dan speaks at a league meeting, you can hear a pin drop in the room."
Most of all Rooney has an acute sense of his team's standing in the city. "In good times and bad times I've seen what we mean to this community," he says. "Like it or not, we're special. When we win, the whole town is up. Doctors have told me that their patients feel better when we win. Pittsburgh is a diverse community, and we help to bring it all together. We have a responsibility to make sure we do things right."
While the lovable loser teams were popular, it was in the 1970s that Steelers support turned to fervor. As Noll, Dan Rooney and brother Art Jr., who headed the personnel department, turned the franchise around, the steel industry fell into the final stages of collapse. Mills along the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers that had long belched dark smoke into the sky fell silent. Says Rob Ruck, 58, a Pittsburgh native and senior lecturer in history at the University of Pittsburgh, "A steelworker once said to me, 'As long as there's smoke up in the sky, I've got a job.' Well, in the '70s there was no more smoke, and Pittsburgh, as a city, no longer had a job."
But it had the Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in six years and who bonded with the wounded city. After being named SI's co--Sportsman of the Year with the Pirates' Willie Stargell in 1979, Bradshaw told writer Ron Fimrite, "This is a blue-collar, shot-and-beer town. They lead a tough life, and they like a team with a tough defense, because that's where character shows." Ruck says, "It's impossible to overstate how Pittsburgh was battered by the collapse of the steel industry. The Steelers replaced steel as the city's identity."
Pittsburgh has remade itself in subsequent years as a finance and technology center, but the relationship forged between the fans and the team has endured. Terrible Towels conceived in 1975 by writer-broadcaster Myron Cope still fill Heinz Field. The Steelers trail only the Cowboys and the Giants in sales of officially licensed merchandise, and in December a survey by Turnkey Sports and Entertainment ranked them No. 3 among 122 professional sports franchises in fan loyalty. (They were No. 1 in 2007.) Likewise, the team has continued to embrace its no-frills philosophy. "Let's put it this way," Gordon says. "You were never going to see the Steelers signing Pacman Jones."
"As soon as you come here, you can sense that the franchise is revered in this city," says Jerome Bettis, who played for Pittsburgh from 1996 to 2005. "And you know it was that way years and years before you came here."
Quarterback Byron Leftwich, who joined the Steelers this season after four years with Jacksonville and one with Atlanta, says, "It's totally different here. I want to be careful not to say anything bad about any other team, but all that matters here is winning. None of the personal stuff is important. There are a lot of things I've seen here this year that I've never seen before, and they're good things." (Like what? "Like last week, before the AFC Championship Game," says Leftwich. "Our Wednesday practice, we were all trying to be perfect because we're playing to go to the Super Bowl. And we had a lousy practice. So Coach Tomlin brings us all together and says, 'You think you were bad today. Let me tell you, I've seen far worse.' And everybody just relaxed.")
THE PITTSBURGH roster is largely devoid of major egos and is ruled by veterans. "You don't find a lot of me-first players in the locker room," says Bettis. "And it's not an accident. They don't target that kind of player. They care about how you fit into the locker room. It starts at the top. Here, upstairs isn't really upstairs."
Kevin Colbert works upstairs (literally, on the second floor, above the locker room) as director of football operations. The 52-year-old Pittsburgh lifer grew up five minutes from Three Rivers Stadium and came to work for the team in 2000. He hasn't forgotten that Dan Rooney was going to be out of town on business when Colbert interviewed for his job but called the day before to wish him luck, imbuing him with the sense of family that pervades the franchise.
The locker room works like a college fraternity. Brothers educate pledges. Bettis came to the Steelers from St. Louis and followed the lead of Greg Lloyd, Rod Woodson and Dermontti Dawson. Defensive end Brett Keisel was drafted out of Brigham Young in 2002 and learned from Kimo von Oelhoffen and Lee Flowers.