INDIANAPOLIS – It can be considered a tenet of the Fritz Pollard Alliance. “We drink from wells we did not dig.” Today in a hotel ballroom in the city that annually hosts the NFL Scouting Combine, the Fritz Pollard Alliance paid tribute to a man who picked up a shovel 15 years ago and started digging.
Dan Rooney died almost exactly one year ago, and at the 2018 Fritz Pollard Alliance Meeting and Awards Reception, a group of the league’s coaches, executives, and football personnel gathered for an event that handed out some awards and recognized some contributions, with the highlight of it all being its tribute to a man who was the driving force behind the most impactful tool in the quest for equal opportunity in the National Football League.
“The first word that comes to my mind when I think of him is leadership,” said Cyrus Mehri, who serves as counsel for the Fritz Pollard Alliance and co-authored the 2002 report “Black Coaches in the National Football League: Superior Performance, Inferior Opportunities” with Johnnie Cochran. “When we first challenged the NFL to do better on diversity and inclusion, we found out that Mr. Rooney wrote a letter to Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, and in that letter he said, ‘It’s not on you. It’s on us as owners.’ And they quickly formed a Diversity Committee. (FPA Chairman) John Wooten called me and said, ‘Cyrus, we have won. I know we won, because you can’t get a better person than Mr. Rooney to lead the charge on this.’”
From those beginnings came the Rooney Rule, and the number of minority head coaches, coordinators, and general managers to be hired since it was adopted speaks to its impact.
“The Rooney Rule has put the National Football League where I as a player thought it should’ve been all along,” said Joe Greene, who addressed the gathering via video from his home in Texas. “What the Rooney Rule did for minorities was give them an opportunity to be heard. I know our coach in Pittsburgh – Mike Tomlin – wasn’t hired because of the Rooney Rule. He was hired because he interviewed, and they said, ‘What have we found here?’
“Dan was about the good of everyone, the good of the whole,” continued Greene. “The owners, his partners, who were with him all the time in contentious negotiations, they knew about his intelligence, his integrity. And so when he said, ‘This is the thing to do, the right thing to do,’ they bought in. That’s the Dan Rooney who led the Pittsburgh Steelers to some incredible things. Incredible. That’s why I think it’s appropriate for the Fritz Pollard Alliance to honor him.”
At the conclusion of Greene’s video, Mike Tomlin was brought to the podium.
“In the last year or so I’ve had a lot of opportunities to speak about the impact of Mr. Rooney, Ambassador Rooney, on a lot of fronts – intimately, in my life, our organization, our community, our football world, our country,” began Tomlin. “You guys know those things. You don’t need me to recount them. I think the thing that we all struggle to express are these intimate relationships he was able to maintain with all of us.
“We’ve got many tables of men from our organization in attendance here, and they’re all here for the same reasons. They all had an intimate relationship with this man. Mine started when he hired me.
“My wife and I flew into Pittsburgh for a press conference. He and his wife invited us to dinner that evening. We hurry up and get dressed and go down to the hotel lobby at 6 p.m., because we were told someone was going to pick us up and we were going to meet Mr. and Mrs. Rooney for dinner.
“It was him and Mrs. Rooney standing in that hotel lobby waiting for us. We went outside, and we got in his mid-size, two-door, Buick sedan. Mrs. Rooney told my wife, ‘Ladies sit in the back,’ and so she moved the seat forward and got into the back.’ Me and wife looked at each other. That’s why we love them.
“If I could express it in a succinct way, and I’ve had an opportunity to think about it and frame it and say it in a few instances over the last year or so – it’s what we can model. That’s what’s important. I strive to be like him. I strive to model him, particularly in areas of leadership, but we can’t be Mr. Rooney.
“It was an honor to know him, it was an honor to have an opportunity to be around him. And we can model him, and what we can model is one of the things I think we all love most about him – and it’s the thing that creates those most intimate stories, like the one I just shared with you:
“In the midst of his greatness and the many things he was responsible for, he was extremely thoughtful. I challenge all of us, and many of us in this room have a lot of responsibilities to our organizations, to this game, to our communities, etc., and all of us have responsibilities to our families and loved ones. As we meet those challenges, the way I try to model my behavior chiefly after him is I just try to be thoughtful. And I challenge you to do the same, because I’ve had an opportunity to think a lot about his impact on my life here recently, and that thoughtfulness always quickly comes up in the equation.
“I thank you guys for giving me an opportunity to share his impact on my life with you, and I’m sure many of you have similar stories. Thank you guys for appropriately recognizing him, but we can’t recognize him enough, can we? Let’s do so in how we live our lives and how we impact this game and our roles within it.”