One of the time-honored stories associated with the Immaculate Reception has Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr. missing the play because he was certain the game was lost and therefore already was in a stadium elevator so he could greet his players as they entered the locker room to congratulate them on a fine season.
But there was another, not-so-well-known part of that day. As the particulars of how the Steelers had won the game became known, Rooney said he wanted to go to the Oakland locker room to offer some words of encouragement to Jack Tatum, whose aggressive play on the ball was what created the carom that Franco Harris had caught out of the air.
And so, leaving the celebration in the Steelers locker room, the Steelers owner made the long walk through the bowels of Three Rivers Stadium to the visitor's locker room, where the Raiders were marinating in the kind of heartbreaking defeat Rooney had experienced so many times before. Not wanting to intrude, Rooney waited patiently for Tatum to exit the locker room, just to congratulate him on a game well-played.
On Oct. 21, the NFL announced the introduction of a new annual award designed to recognize players who "exemplify outstanding sportsmanship on the field. On Dec. 9, the league announced the initial group of 32 nominees – one from each team – who would be considered for the award in its inaugural season. Today, the NFL announced that this annual sportsmanship award will be named after Steelers founder Art Rooney Sr.
And so it will be that the annual Art Rooney Award will be presented to the "NFL player who demonstrates on the field the qualities of great sportsmanship, including fair play, respect for opponents, and integrity in competition," according to the league's news release.
"Art Rooney is an iconic figure in NFL history. It is appropriate that we honor his legacy in this way and recognize NFL players for one of the important values that Mr. Rooney represented so well," said NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The annual Art Rooney Award winner is to be determined by a vote of the NFL's players via a system similar to the way the league determines the winner of the Walter Payton Award.
Each team will nominate one of its players during the season, and the Steelers' nominee for 2014 was Troy Polamalu. Four former players from the NFL Legends Community – Warrick Dunn, Curtis Martin, Karl Mecklenburg, and Leonard Wheeler – selected four finalists from each conference for a total of eight. Then the final step is to have the league's current players vote on the eight finalists as part of the 2015 Pro Bowl ballot on Dec. 19.
The inaugural winner of the Art Rooney Award will be announced on Saturday, Jan. 31, the night before Super Bowl XLIX, at the 4th Annual NFL Honors.
"When I first heard about it, I wasn't sure because I didn't want it to be just another award," said Steelers Chairman Dan Rooney. "But then as we talked about it more, it became clear they wanted to make it a prestige thing. The Chief always was interested in what was good for the game, and this is going to be an award for how you handle yourself on the field. I'm glad it's going to happen."
The annual winner will receive a $25,000 donation from the NFL Foundation to a charity of his choice and will be presented with the Art Rooney Trophy, which will represent the important role that sportsmanship plays in the game and how NFL players who demonstrate integrity and honor on the field serve as role models for other players at all levels.
"It is gratifying that sportsmanship is the category," said Steelers President Art Rooney II. "It's appropriate. I like to think of my grandfather as someone who truly was a good sport, somebody who cared about the respect and the integrity of the game. The fact it's being voted on by the players, well, the recipient can feel good about it because it's voted on by his peers."