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Gorman: Steelers president Art Rooney deals with death, drama

Kevin Gorman
| Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, 9:36 p.m.
Steelers president Art Rooney talks with Hines Ward during practice Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2017, at St. Vincent.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers president Art Rooney talks with Hines Ward during practice Wednesday, Aug. 6, 2017, at St. Vincent.

Art Rooney II has spent the past 52 summers coming to St. Vincent, where the Steelers are about to break from training camp.

This one is different, as it's the first without his father, Steelers chairman Dan Rooney, who died in April.

After reaching the AFC championship game, the Steelers president spent the offseason dealing with drama.

Rooney refused to treat it as a distraction, whether it was Ben Roethlisberger's retirement talk, Antonio Brown's lucrative contract extension, Le'Veon Bell's refusal to sign a franchise-tag tender or Martavis Bryant's reinstatement from a seasonlong suspension.

Instead, Rooney patiently put the pieces of the puzzle together for another Super Bowl run, though he cautioned that talk of adding a seventh Lombardi to the team's trophy case is premature at this point.

“I pretty much look at every season the same way: It's a journey. You've got to take it one step at a time,” Rooney II said Wednesday in a wide-ranging interview with the Tribune-Review. “I know people don't like to hear clichés, but if you start thinking about you're a Super Bowl team on Sept. 10, you're in trouble.

“I like the team we have. I think we can be a very competitive team, but we've got a long way to go between here and the Super Bowl.”

Rooney said he lives for that challenge, but did allow that Bell's 19-day holdout during training camp has been a source of “frustration.”

While Rooney said the absence of the Pro Bowl running back and team MVP hasn't been a “big distraction” to Steelers players, he echoed the concerns of general manager Kevin Colbert and coach Mike Tomlin about Bell missing valuable practice time.

“Obviously, we'd love for Le'Veon to be here,” Rooney said. “I hope he's here soon. I hope he realizes that he needs to be here, that he needs to be with his teammates, working with them. Yeah, so there's some frustration to it. But, knowing Le'Veon, I know he's working hard and I'm sure when he gets here, he'll be ready to go. Until he gets here, we're doing what we need to do with the guys that are here.”

As for Roethlisberger, Rooney said he “felt like he was going to come back this year the whole time” and the Steelers didn't go into the NFL Draft “saying we have to draft Ben's successor” — even though they selected Joshua Dobbs in the fourth round.

Rewarding a big piece like Brown with a four-year extension worth $68 million helped the Steelers “look at the rest of the puzzle,” Rooney said. Signing left tackle Alejandro Villanueva to a new deal at the 11th hour of camp locked up all five starting offensive linemen, and the reinstatement of Bryant last week added another dynamic playmaker to a star-studded offense.

“I think the attitude here at this camp has been really good,” Rooney said. “I think this team understands what it means to be a team. We have a collection of players that, on an individual basis, are considered to be, let's say, star players, but I don't think anybody is acting that way. I think they all understand that it's a team game. We're going to live and die as a team, and that's the most important part of it.”

All of which makes Rooney's frustration over Bell's absence all the more understandable. Although a handful of Steelers starters aren't practicing, Bell is the only one who hasn't shown up at St. Vincent.

Meantime, the Steelers locked up Tomlin to a two-year extension through 2020. While Rooney refused to speculate on contract extensions for Colbert, defensive end Stephon Tuitt or inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, he allowed that they remain a possibility.

“We're still open for business at this time of the year, let's put it that way,” Rooney said. “We'll see if we can get something done.”

Rooney also said he “would be surprised” if the Steelers don't spend “some part of the summer” at St. Vincent — even if the NFL changes its preseason.

“This is a great setup for us. Our fans love it. Our players enjoy being here. It works,” Rooney said. “I always tell our players that it's a great place to come and get ready for a football season. Our record coming out of here has been pretty strong.”

Now that the family business has been passed down to a third generation, Rooney hopes this will be a “special season for a lot reasons.”

“There's no denying it's different,” Rooney said of his father's absence. “It's something we'll be adjusting to. I think everybody in the organization wants to make him proud. We all understand his spirit is with us. But it's a change, and that's part of life.

“I love being part of the organization, being part of the league and being part of the game of football. It's a great game. Every season is special. Every season has a lot of different twists, ups and downs. It makes you want to come back every year and try to do it again. It's exciting to get started on the season, knowing that you're going to have to fight through different kinds of adversity — sitting here today, you don't know what it's going to be but you know it's going to be there — and that makes it interesting.”

Dealing with those distractions and drama will be worth it for Rooney, whose family lives and dies with the Steelers. Ending this season with another Super Bowl trophy would be the best way to honor that.

Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at kgorman@tribweb.com or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.

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