The original idea was to honor Art Rooney Sr. Given the nature of the man, it's fitting the idea morphed into a cause that for over 20 years has been helping kids growing up in the same Pittsburgh neighborhood he had called home for most of his life.
Some time after Art Rooney Sr. died in August 1988, John Howell, then the General Manager at WPXI-TV, and Allegheny County Commissioner Tom Foerster came to the Steelers with an idea.
"The two of them came to see us and said they wanted to do a statue," said Art Rooney II, Rooney Sr.'s grandson and currently the team's president. "Our response at the time was something like, 'Well that's nice, except that's the last thing the Chief would have wanted. If you're going to do this, let's also have it fall into something else that can benefit the community.' Tying it into something that benefited the community would have made the Chief feel good about doing this."
Then the wheels started turning, and the Art Rooney Statue Fund was created, with Howell and Foerster doing a good bit of the driving. As money for the statue was being raised, the lasting community touch came to be known as the Art Rooney Scholarship Fund.
"We started talking one time," said Rooney II, "and we came up with the idea of a scholarship fund for students from the North Side, money to help them go to college."
The statue idea had led them to the scholarship fund idea, and then came the race. It's known today as the Gatorade/Steelers 5K Race, Fitness Walk and Kids' Kickoff Run, and it celebrates its 25th anniversary on Saturday, Aug. 31.
"From the idea of the scholarship fund, we picked it up with the idea of the race as a way to raise some money," said Rooney. "It wasn't like we came up with a unique idea, because there were races all over at that time, but we wanted to do something that would be well-supported. And it has been."
It has turned out to be so well-supported because it's more of a community happening than simply a race.
"People enjoy the race, they enjoy the day," said Rooney. "We have a kid's race, and it's something for the whole family. Some runners who come are serious runners, but most of the people who are there just come to enjoy a run or a walk, or just be part of the day."
This year's race features a 3.1-mile level course on the North Shore highlighted by a spectacular finish inside Heinz Field. As always, there are celebrity chairmen, with Ryan Clark and Louis Lipps serving in that capacity this year.
"The event is nice, and it is a nice event, but the part that's the most gratifying – and what my grandfather would have been happy about – is that students from the North Side are able to get some benefit, get some help for college."
When it began, the Art Rooney Scholarship Fund awarded $10,000 grants to one student from Oliver High School, one from Perry Traditional Academy, and one from North Catholic High School, which Dan Rooney attended as a boy growing up in his father's house on the North Side. Since then, Oliver has been closed by the Pittsburgh School Board, and so Perry gets two scholarships. And the stipends have been raised to $12,000.
"The discussion was always about how can we help kids from the North Side," said Rooney. "There were a lot of ideas kicked around as to the best way to do that, and we just kept coming back to the scholarship fund. A way to help kids go to college just always struck me as something the Chief would have liked."
In 2013, there were three $12,000 scholarships awarded. Two will go to graduating seniors from Perry through the Pittsburgh Promise and one from North Catholic High School. Pittsburgh Promise and North Catholic staffs will nominate students who have been accepted to college and are in need of financial aid. The students who won this year's scholarships are Broughton Ganaway, Shiloh Richards, and Bailey Holihan.
Those three make it now 72 who have been awarded some financial aid to attend Cornell, and the University of Pennsylvania, and Brigham Young, and Morehouse College, and The Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and Fisk, and Virginia State, plus just about all of the colleges and universities in Western Pennsylvania.
"I've talked to these kids over the years. They're all very happy and appreciative of this help," said Rooney. "I don't know really that there are any great stories out there, but we meet the kids every year. We bring them in and talk to them, and every year it's just a great group of kids. We came up with a scholarship committee to determine the winners, and I served on the original committee with Joe Gordon and John Brown."
At the time, Gordon was the team's PR Director and Brown was a recent addition to the Steelers alumni, having played for the team as an offensive tackle from 1967-72.
"I remember the resumes we got – these were great kids, smart, good kids with very good grades," said Rooney. "It's nice to see those kinds of kids getting the money."
In this, the 25th year of the race, some 3,500 runners and walkers will participate tomorrow, with the event scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. Day of race registration and packet pickup begins at 7 a.m. in the FedEx Great Hall at Heinz Field. Participants are advised to arrive early due to the anticipated heavy traffic.
Gatorade is the title sponsor of the race. Major sponsors include Giant Eagle, Dick's Sporting Goods, Fuel Up to Play 60, Nike, KDKA-TV, WDVE-FM, ESPN Radio 970 and UPMC Centers for Rehab Services.