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Rooney-Mara relationship shaped Steelers, Giants and NFL

| Sunday, Nov. 4, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell watches practice with the Steelers Dan Rooney and Art Rooney II at St. Vincent College Aug. 5, 2010. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

They are the First Family of the NFL.

Relying on multi-generational knowledge of the league and how to succeed through astute drafting, excellent coaching and strong management, the family's team already has won two Super Bowls in this young century.

The franchise was founded by a sports legend with gambling ties — something that wouldn't be permitted today — who was succeeded by his son, and both became members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

The on-field leader is a star quarterback drafted in 2004. And to add a dash of glamour, a franchise valued at more than $1 billion includes a movie producer in the ownership group.

When the Steelers play the New York Giants late Sunday afternoon, it will be yet another showcase for a team that emerged from the NFL's dark ages, when the league was a mere blip on the nation's sports radar, fourth or fifth in interest behind baseball, college football, boxing and maybe even college basketball.

But the team's family ownership persevered and was rewarded as the sport evolved and prospered beyond all expectations, even spawning an unofficial national holiday: Super Sunday.

Obviously it will be another great day for the Rooneys.

Or is it the Maras?

Or both?

Just as the Rooneys and the Steelers are synonymous in Pittsburgh, so are the Maras and the Giants in New York. Neither franchise has played a game without a Rooney or a Mara in charge — the Giants have played 1,217 games, the Steelers 1,083 — and it is unimaginable to think either ever will.

‘Goes back to the beginning'

Everything the Steelers are came about, in part, because of the friendship between Giants founder Tim Mara and Steelers founder Art Rooney, a tip and a tipped pass.

“The relationship between the Rooneys and the Maras goes back to the beginning,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said. “My grandfather and Tim Mara were good friends and got through the hard times together.”

With the fledgling NFL desperate for a big-city franchise in 1925 (teams at the time were in cities such as Pottsville, Pa.; Frankford, Pa.; Hammond, Ind.; and Duluth, Minn.), Tim Mara — a bookmaker since age 18 — spent $500 to put a team in New York. Today, the Giants are worth about $1.3 billion.

It was a game day to game day proposition to make ends meet, and the Giants often didn't. Mara's friend, Pittsburgh gambler Art Rooney, encountered the same fate eight years later after he put up $2,500 for a Pittsburgh franchise.

Both teams tried to hire big names to prop up the gate. The Giants landed an over-the-hill Jim Thorpe; the Steelers, known then as the Pirates, signed a college whiz running back named Byron “Whizzer” White.

Rooney's fortunes turned when a tip by Mara paid off with a $50,000 payday that Rooney parlayed into more than $300,000, moving from track to track during one of the most spectacular sprees of betting in horse racing history.

It was so much money that Rooney hired an armored truck to bring his haul back to Pittsburgh. The actual amount was never disclosed, but it set up the Rooneys for life. Factoring in inflation, $350,000 in 1936 would be $5.7 million today.

Out of respect for a friend whose bookmaking business he wounded by winning such an enormous bet, Art Sr. later named his son Tim after Mara. Tim Rooney, fittingly, went on to run part of the family's horse racing business, and his daughter, Kathleen, married current-day Giants player evaluation vice president Chris Mara.

That bet wasn't the only Mara family transaction that aided the Rooneys.

In 1970, with the Giants now being run by Tim Mara's son, Wellington Mara, and his nephew, Timothy J. Mara, the team dealt middle linebacker Henry Davis and a little-known running back drafted in the 11th round the year before to Pittsburgh for backup quarterback Dick Shiner.

Shiner threw only 12 passes that season, but running back Frenchy Fuqua gained nearly 3,000 yards in seven Steelers season and, even more significantly, was the point man for the Immaculate Reception.

Had Fuqua not streamed out of the backfield to occupy Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum's attention, causing Terry Bradshaw to throw the ball his way rather than toward intended receiver Barry Pearson, the greatest play in pro football history wouldn't have happened.

Steelers chairman emeritus Dan Rooney, who counts the Maras among his closest friends, credits the Immaculate Reception with changing everything about the Steelers, including their perception of being the NFL's version of the can't-win Cubs.

Special relationship

Over the years, the Rooneys and Maras have been much more than friendly rival owners.

“My dad many years ago started to sit beside Wellington at league meetings, and that continues today,” Art Rooney II said. “We go to a league meeting, you sit with the Giants and you compare notes on things. It's been a great relationship and something that's a special part of being in the National Football League.”

In 1961, Art Rooney Sr. and son Dan twisted the arms of brothers Wellington and Jack Mara to convince them that a national TV contract in which the clubs split the revenues equally was best for the league. It was a huge concession for the Maras because the New York TV rights were worth many times more than those in Green Bay.

Eight years later, Wellington Mara, in turn, persuaded the Rooneys and Browns owner Art Modell to make the move from the National Conference — the NFL — to the merged American Conference, the former AFL. It was a switch Dan Rooney initially despised.

“Wellington was one of the people that influenced my dad that this was going to be OK, and we'd survive and still be friends,” Rooney II said.

In 1976, Wellington Mara appointed Dan Rooney as chief labor negotiator with the players' union; Mara, Rooney and players union chief Gene Upshaw overcame differences — such as the 1982 strike — to reach labor deal after labor deal.

In recognition of how their astute decisions influenced the NFL, Art Sr. and Dan Rooney and Tim and Wellington Mara are the only father-son pairs to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Today, Art II runs the Steelers on a day-to-day basis, and John Mara, the oldest of Wellington's 11 children, and Steve Tisch are the Giants' co-owners. The Tisch family, which has ties to the movie business, acquired Timothy J. Mara's 50 percent stake in 1991.

The Rooneys added minority owners in 2006 — among them movie producer Thomas Tull, who recently increased his stake to avoid having to sell the team. That was two years after the Giants and Steelers dipped into the 2004 draft pool to grab their leaders, quarterbacks Eli Manning and Ben Roethlisberger.

There's another movie connection, too: Rooney Mara, daughter of Giants player evaluation vice president Chris Mara and Kathleen Rooney Mara, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress last year. Her sister, Kate, also is an actress.

Rooney Mara. What a perfect name for the child of two families so closely tied for so many decades — first by gambling, then by football, now by blood.

The NFL's two First Families.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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