Steelers' Rooney instrumental in bringing American football to Ireland
DUBLIN — Steelers chairman Dan Rooney was surprised to have the Coke Park Classic winner's trophy named after him.
Perhaps he shouldn't have been. Rooney's figurative fingerprints are all over Croke Park Stadium.
“He was very, very helpful in the design of (the extensive renovation) of Croke Park,” said Peter McKenna, commercial and stadium director of the Gaelic Athletic Association. “He took our design team to various stadiums in the U.S. to show them, ‘This is the best of.'
“Ambassador Rooney has been a huge friend of Ireland and of Croke Park.”
Rooney, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ireland for 3 1⁄2 years, will attend Saturday's game between Penn State and Central Florida, and he participate in ceremonies at a stadium that is the largest in Ireland and fourth biggest in Europe.
More than 55,000 tickets have been sold for the game, the third college contest played in Ireland and second at Croke Park.
Rooney said he is pleased the facility is hosting PSU and UCF.
“I think it's great,” Rooney said in an email to the Tribune-Review. “(The Steelers) played (an exhibition game) there (in 1997), and it was great. They are very professional. The grounds people are very, very good. I think it's obviously a great location.”
In recognition of his role in bringing an American football game to the hallowed Croke Park grounds normally reserved for Gaelic football and hurling, a trophy was named in Rooney's honor.
A rather unique trophy, at that. The Dan Rooney Trophy is made up of 4,200-year-old Irish bog yew and steel from Three Rivers Stadium.
McKenna said the bog yew — essentially, a fallen tree that was preserved under a dried-out swamp for millenniums — has been carbon dated by Dublin's historic Trinity College.
Rooney was grateful to be the namesake of a trophy, an honor not usually reserved for the living.
“It was a little bit surprising to me,” he wrote in an email sent by Steelers spokesman Burt Lauten. “We have the Lombardi Trophy (and) Walter Payton Man of the Year, but basically we don't do that rather often. But this is an honor, and I know that this is a custom that they do, and choosing me was fine.”
McKenna said Rooney was instrumental in what he called the “vertical circulation” of the renovation of Croke Park, which is more than a century old. Most European soccer stadiums limit fans from walking around concourses outside of certain sections (what McKenna called horizontal circulation), but Rooney helped influence the GAA to adopt a more American style.
“Mr. Rooney was absolutely involved in sport,” McKenna said. “He wears it on his sleeve. The Steelers are just a huge, huge part of what he's about.”
Still, Rooney's stay in Ireland drew him more familiar with a different kind of football: Gaelic football.
“I'm familiar with it now, much more so than I was before,” Rooney said. “But I was familiar with it because I had gone to games a number of times there.”
On Saturday, Rooney will see an American football game played at the Gaelic national stadium for the first time since the team he owns played one there 17 years ago.