Art Rooney founded the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1933. They were not the Steelers then; they were the Pittsburgh Pirates, but Rooney paid $2,500 and they became one of the original NFL franchises.
This July 4th weekend, if you are missing football and are looking for something a little different than a classic Steelers game on YouTube or NFL Network, you might consider taking 95 minutes and watching The Chief, starring Tom Atkins, based on the hit stage play about the life and times of Art Rooney.
The Chief was released in 2010 and Atkins is superb in the role. Steve Parys directed the film version of the play that premiered in October of 2003 at the O’Reilly Theater in Pittsburgh. The movie was filmed at Byham Theater in Pittsburgh as well. Atkins starred in both versions of the story and after a few minutes of the film, you can see the spirit of Mr. Rooney shining through.
Atkins grew up in Pittsburgh and he captures the essence of the character and the town. Rob Zellers and Gene Collier, who wrote the piece, do a masterful job weaving personal stories and mixing in football anecdotes from the franchise’s colorful history.
The play sold out for seven consecutive seasons at the Pittsburgh Public Theater until it was retired in 2010. The play was filmed to capture Atkins’ turn as The Chief so that future generations of Steelers fans could enjoy the performance and recall the birth of the Steeler dynasty through the eyes of the man who suffered for decades before finding the right coach and trusting his sons to run the football operations of the team.
The movie weaves through Rooney coming up in Pittsburgh’s first ward and his Irish roots. A particularly funny quip about his background as an Irishman:
“My father was born in Wales, his family went there for work. One day my father went out to buy a life insurance policy and the broker started giving him a hard time. ‘So all these years, you’re telling everybody you’re Irish? You were born in Wales.’ Pop never skipped a beat and said, ‘If kittens are born in the oven, you don’t call them biscuits. I’m as Irish as Paddies, pig.'”
Rooney owned the Steelers for over 50 years and the film is as much about some of the more colorful characters in Pittsburgh history as it is Rooney and the Steelers. He regales the audience with stories of the local Knights of Columbus, politics and his first job working with the powerful Republican State Senator James J. Coyne and his success promoting the Ezzard Charles and Jersey Joe Walcott Heavyweight Championship fight in Pittsburgh. He tells a moving story about Billy Conn and his fight with Joe Louis, how Conn was the best pound for pound fighter to ever box, and how his stubborn streak cost him the title.
Rooney goes on to describe the only day he ever punched a timeclock at the mill, and Atkins perfectly captures the everyman touch that players and persons who knew him best always said they loved about him. He perfectly balances Rooney’s deep faith and his zest for life. Rooney describes how he knocked two of his first three coaches unconscious, and how he signed Byron “Whizzer” White to an NFL record contract in 1938 over $15,000 dollars.
The Chief does not shy away from the painful quarterback history of the Steelers and how Walt Kiesling told him Johnny Unitas was too dumb to make it in the NFL. Atkins as Rooney quips:
“I was worried if I we were around for the millennium, we might cut the second coming.”
There are stories about Rocky Bleier, Joe Greene, Chuck Noll and the Immaculate Reception. In fact, the Immaculate Reception is the only actual NFL highlight in the show.
If you have not seen the performance, I won’t spoil the story about the play that was named by NFL Network as the Greatest Play in NFL History. The time flies during the lively storytelling and it is a must watch for Steelers fans. The Rooney family has owned the Steelers since the NFL’s inception and Art Rooney II is now the third generation of the family running the team. It has been six decades for me watching the Steelers, but it is my sincere wish that the Steelers stay a family business that understands that the team is about people, fans and players.
The rest of the NFL can be a business, I don’t root for them. The Pittsburgh Steelers are a family and let us hope it stays that way.
What do you think, Steeler Nation? Have you ever watched The Chief and if so, what did you think? Please comment below or on my Twitter @thebubbasq.