Consider these things:
- There was the time in a 1976 game at Cleveland that Cleveland Browns defensive end Joe "Turkey" Jones picked up the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terry Bradshaw and, using him as if he were a posthole digger, drove him head-first into the turf, injuring the quarterback’s spine.
- A year earlier, again at Cleveland Stadium, Steelers defensive tackle "Mean" Joe Greene, upset because he thought he was being held, pretended like he was a kicker trying a 50-yard field goal and that a very personal part of Browns offensive tackle Bob McKay’s body was the football.
- In an attempt to protect his teammate, Kent native and Ohio State product Tom DeLeone, a center who had just been signed by the Browns, retaliated by running off the sideline and delivering a roundhouse punch to Greene, escalating the situation into a bench-clearing brawl. Cleveland left tackle Doug Dieken, now the longtime color analyst on the Browns Radio Network, likes the Steelers about as much as he enjoys getting root canals. As such, he quipped years later, "I didn’t know much about Tom before then. But as soon as he did that, I said to myself, ‘Hey, I kind of like this guy.’ "
- Steelers wide receiver Lynn Swann caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Bradshaw with 11 seconds left to beat the Browns 16-13 at Pittsburgh in 1980. Browns cornerback Ron Bolton screamed afterward that he was beaten on the play only because of being illegally picked off, or screened, by another Steelers receiver. Swann shot back that the score was especially sweet because, as he contended, Bolton had spit into his face earlier in the game.
- Browns punter Chris Gardocki was crushed by Pittsburgh’s Joey Porter on a blindside block in a 2000 game at Cleveland. Believing that the hit was pre-mediated, being ordered from the sideline to get him and his big leg and booming kicks out of the game, Gardocki angrily ran toward Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, stopped about 10 yards away from him and gave the former Browns linebacker and assistant coach what can best be described as a one-fingered salute.
Yes, to the surprise of absolutely no one who lives in either community, the Browns and Steelers don’t much care for each other. They never have, and they never will. This is a deep-seated dislike built on 128 games played over 68 seasons dating back to 1950, and the fact that Cleveland and Pittsburgh are very similar cities and the fiercest fights are always between twins.
But there’s an exception to every rule, and the exception in this case is Dan Rooney, who passed away on Thursday. The Steelers chairman was 84, being born in 1932, the year before his father, Art Rooney Sr., founded the team.
Like his father, Dan Rooney is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Like his father, he is one of the cornerstones not just of the Steelers, but of the entire National Football League as well. And also like his father, he was a friend of the … Browns?
It was Nov. 14, 1999 and the expansion-era Browns were in Pittsburgh to play their first road game against the Steelers. The Browns franchise had been held in trust by the NFL for the previous three years, 1996-98, after owner Art Modell moved the original Browns to Baltimore following the 1995 season.
Media people who cover the NFL arrive about three hours before kickoff so as to beat the traffic, get settled and do pre-game work. It was just after noon, and the Repository’s then new Browns beat writer, Steve Doerschuk, with whom I had traveled to Pittsburgh that morning, were sitting in our seats in the Three Rivers Stadium press box when I decided to get up and walk around so as to stretch my legs.
I found an out-of-the-way spot between two rows of seats and watched the two teams warming up down below on a mild but windy late-fall day.
We all have an innate sense of when someone, or something, has moved into our immediate surroundings.
Sensing that this was such a time, I turned to my left and, much to my surprise, there was Dan Rooney standing just a few feet away, watching the warmups with me. As down-to-earth and kind-hearted as any celebrity could be, he loved eschewing the stuffiness of the owner’s box for the joy of mingling with media people and fans. He lived in the same North Hills neighborhood in Pittsburgh in which he grew up and usually walked to Three Rivers Stadium on game days so as to not take up a space in the tiny, overcrowded parking lot there.
I introduced myself and we exchanged some small talk, after which we both went back to watching all the running, stretching, passing and kicking going on.
Rooney broke the silence about a minute later, saying, "It sure is good to see those orange helmets on my football field again."
By orange helmets, he meant the Browns.
Most fans of either team would be shocked by that remark, saying that it is akin to a general admitting that he was happy to see enemy soldiers on his country’s soil. How bizarre! Had Dan Rooney gone mad?
No, that wasn’t the case at all in this instance. In fact, it was just the opposite.
When, midway through that 1995 season, Modell announced the Browns’ impending move from Cleveland, the city’s movers and shakers tried to find support anywhere they could, from anyone they could, to block his intentions. They found a sympathetic ear in Rooney.
Rooney spoke out strongly against the move. He was a well-respected, even revered, figure in the league. He was an icon. So when he spoke, people listened. His words carried a lot of weight.
Along with that, though, Rooney’s words were an unexpected salvo hitting Modell’s ship as it sat in port in Cleveland, getting ready to sail off to Baltimore’s Chesapeake Bay in two months. That’s because Rooney and his father, who died in 1988, were close friends with Modell. It was a relationship that dated back years. When it came to matters of the league, they moved together as one, realizing that their two teams, because of their cities’ close proximity to one another and the clubs’ decades-long long rivalry of being in the same division and/or conference, were indelibly linked.
In fact, the merger between the NFL and American Football League was able to be completed in 1970 only because the Browns and Steelers decided – together – to offer themselves up as two of the three sacrificial lambs to move from the NFL to the re-worked AFL, the American Football Conference. The other team was the then Baltimore Colts. There were 16 teams in the NFL but just 10 in the AFL, and the new league wanted two 13-team conferences.
The deal between the Browns and Steelers was sealed when Modell visited Art Rooney, who was hospitalized, and told him that he would go only if Rooney did. Rooney signed off on it, and this significant part of pro football history became official.
So for Dan Rooney to abandon him a quarter-century later, especially in such a public way, told Modell on no uncertain terms that he had lost his strongest and most faithful ally. It was a huge stumbling block for Modell, one that he could not avoid. He had to figure out a way to get around it, or else he would be stopped dead in his tracks. It helped set into motion the movement to force Modell to, reluctantly, leave the Browns’ name, colors and history behind in Cleveland, which would be used by an expansion team to begin play in 1999. Then and only then would the NFL grant Modell permission to go to Baltimore to start a new team that would eventually be called the Ravens.
With that, Browns fans owed Dan Rooney no small bit of thanks for what he did in helping return football to Cleveland. I told him exactly that, that day, and he smiled. He knew. But he was too humble to ever take any credit for it.
It was just the right thing to do, and Rooney was all about being principled in his life, first and foremost, even if it meant risking a friendship to do it. Now that’s bravery and courage.
Plus Rooney, that day in Pittsburgh in 1999, had, brilliantly and succinctly, summed up the essence of Browns-Steelers in just 14 words. Never before had it been said like that, nor has it since. Not many are as smart as he was in being able to cut through all the superfluous and see the big picture.
For, in his Rooney’s opinion, those three years that the Browns were gone, taking the historical rivalry with it, were bad not just for the people in Cleveland, but also for those in Pittsburgh and around the NFL in the way it watered down the sport.
It is the legacy that Dan Rooney, an unlikely choice for such on the surface only, should always have in Northeast Ohio.