John Wooten took a deep breath, and as he started to speak you could hear the emotion in his voice as he talked about late Steelers chairman Dan Rooney.
"I miss him terribly," said Wooten, Chairman of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. "I really do.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think of him or I am reminded of a statement he said to me. He said, 'Always do what you know is right.' That is as simple as it gets."
Rooney always did what was right, and if there is anyone who knows that firsthand, it's Wooten. Wooten, who played 10 seasons in the NFL and later embarked on a career in scouting and player personnel with several teams, was among a group that fought for diversity and equality in the NFL that eventually lead to the development of the Rooney Rule.
On Thursday during the Fritz Pollard Alliance annual Salute to Excellence Awards, Rooney was remembered for championing the fight to get the Rooney Rule passed.
"I know how much it meant to him to see the organization, the Fritz Pollard Alliance, get started," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "John Wooten has done a great job. My dad became very close to him. I appreciate the work he and Cyrus (Mehri) and all of the people involved in the organization have done. I am proud of him, that is for sure.
"It's important to continue the process and make sure people are getting the opportunity to advance, whether my father was involved or not. It was important to my father to see it continue. It's so great to see him be recognized at this dinner and have the work continue that the organization is doing."
Cyrus Mehri spoke about Dan Rooney and the work he did to launch the Rooney Rule. Mehri and the late Johnnie Cochran, both U.S. civil rights attorneys, released a report titled 'Black Coaches in the NFL: superior performance, inferior opportunities' back in 2002 after both Tony Dungy and Dennis Green were fired, despite them having a winning track record in their careers. Wooten and Kellen Winslow put together a group of minority scouts, coaches and front office personnel to advocate for better, and the report was sent to the NFL and its owners.
"As a sign of extraordinary leadership, when that report came out Dan Rooney wrote a letter to Commissioner (Paul) Tagliabue and said this is on us, the owners, let us take the lead on this," said Mehri. "Tagliabue created a diversity group of owners that Dan Rooney was the chair.
"There are a couple of things that happened that I appreciate more now in hindsight. When Dan Rooney got appointed, John Wooten called me and said 'Cyrus, we have just won.' I asked him why he felt that way. He told me Tagliabue appointed Dan Rooney as the chair of the committee. He told me let me tell you about Dan Rooney and he went through the history of the Rooney family and the tradition and how he treated people and that there is no owner more respected in the NFL than Dan Rooney. He schooled me on the magnitude he brought to this."
Rooney worked diligently with the committee, until what became known as the Rooney Rule was passed in 2002. The Fritz Pollard Alliance was founded after the Rooney Rule passed, overseeing that teams abide by the rule. The rule requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate for openings in coaching and senior football operations positions. It was recently expanded to require teams to interview women for executive positions as well.
"The scope of this is way beyond what we could have possibly imagined. He was invaluable in that happening," said Mehri. "There is no way to fully quantify it. We said it should be called the Rooney Rule because we had an internal champion fighting for this and showing that leadership. I felt like the owners would own it that way. This indicates it came from the most respected owner in the league. And he earned it.
"He brought a moral compass to the league. He made it clear to me that he was looking for what was best for the game, not the Steelers, not the owners, but for the game. That is why he deserves to be in the Hall of Fame. His foresight and collective view is unmatched. Everyone can learn from what he did. He brought a value system we can all learn from. You saw that in everything he did. He never lost his humbleness."
The dinner also honored individuals with the Johnnie Cochran Salute to Excellence Award, presented to minority owners, coaches and front office executives whose team advanced to the NFL playoffs. Steelers Coach Mike Tomlin and Vice President of Football & Business Administration Omar Khan were honored for the team once again making it to the postseason.
"Mike is committed to what the organization is doing," said Rooney. "This is important for him.
"The work this organization does is important. John Wooten has done a great job and the perseverance that he has shown to make sure people are paying attention. There are a lot of good people involved that will make sure everything that was started with my dad, Commissioner Tagliabue and the others involved will continue."