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"It all goes back to Mr. Rooney," he said. "He sets the table so that everyone wants to come to work and do their best. He's the boss, but it's not like he's a boss. You want to play for him. I saw [ Cardinals defensive tackle] Darnell Dockett tonight, and he was like, 'What is it about the Steelers? What do you have that's different from everywhere else?' And it's Mr. Rooney and the atmosphere he creates."
That atmosphere, dating back 40 years—to when Rooney hired Chuck Noll and everyone in the organization finally got on the same page, where they remain today—is at the center of Pittsburgh's winning six Super Bowls in the last 35 years. (No other team has won more than five.) Imagine players dying to stay in a slumping Rust Belt city with a smaller population than Aurora, Colo. Good players, like Hines Ward. "I never want to play anywhere else," said Ward, knocking on the door of Hall of Fame contention. "I will play in Pittsburgh my whole career, God willing."
You know what wins in football? Team first. Against the Cardinals, Ward showed how. Ward went to Holmes the day of the game and told him, in essence, It might not be my day because of how my knee's feeling today, and players become stars by excelling on days like Super Sunday. Ward knew the guy he'd taken under his wing was ready to fly. Holmes, when the game got very big in the final three minutes, went to Ben Roethlisberger and told him, in essence: I'm your guy, and I want to make the big plays today, and you can trust me. And Roethlisberger, being chased all over the place, believed Holmes and got him the ball four times on the biggest drive of their lives. Ward gave it up to Holmes. Holmes let Roethlisberger know he was ready for the hot lights. Holmes proved it, catching the most acrobatic winning touchdown in crunch time in Super Bowl history. Afterward I caught Ward unashamedly, unabashedly crying.
"I can't help it," he told me, walking through the tunnel from the field after the game. Tears streaked his eye black, and his mouth was curled in a tortured frown. "I am just so happy right now."
"You look like you're just leaving a funeral," I said.
"No," he said. "All the work I put in—we put in—paid off. I am so proud of Santonio. So proud. It's a great thing about this team. It's such a team."
After games, win or lose, Rooney walks from locker to locker, thanking players for their contributions. One former Steeler, Sean Morey, a special-teamer, now plays for Arizona and told me the week before the game: "I remember playing for that. That gesture by Mr. Rooney meant more than anything." After the win over Arizona in the Super Bowl, Rooney got to defensive end Aaron Smith's locker. Rooney stuck out his hand. Smith didn't shake it. He hugged Rooney instead. "I'm happy you got your sixth, sir," Smith said. "I'm just happy I could be a part of giving you something you deserve so much. We're lucky to have you for an owner."
Steeler Nation is lucky too.