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The Maras and the Rooneys

John Mara, Ann Mara, Steve Tisch. University of Phoenix Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 3, 2008 in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara)

By Tom Deignan, Contributor

The long and enduring relationship of two Irish-American sporting families.

In 2008, when the New York football Giants capped a spectacular drive in the final two minutes of Super Bowl XLII to become underdog winners against Tom Brady and the heavily favored New England Patriots, you have to believe Dan Rooney was among those cheering loudly.

True, Rooney is not affiliated with the Giants organization. In fact, he is patriarch of the rival Pittsburgh Steelers.

But Rooney’s Pittsburgh clan and the Giants – long run by the Irish-American Mara family – share a bond that spans nearly a century and transcends even their deep Irish roots.

“Two Irish-American families have had their contribution to professional football recognized by having both a father and son enshrined in the Hall of Fame,” Larry McCarthy writes in Making the Irish American (edited by Marion Casey and J.J. Lee).

He is referring to Tim Mara and his son Wellington, as well as Art Rooney and his son Dan. “In their way,” McCarthy continues, “each family has made significant contributions to the creation and development of America’s football league.”

Passing the Torch

The Steelers were the league’s most dominant franchise in the 1970s, winning four Super Bowls that decade with stars like Terry Bradshaw, Lynn Swan and Mean Joe Green. By the mid-1980s, however, the Giants had become big winners, nabbing their own Super Bowl victory under coach Bill Parcells in 1986.

Art Rooney died in 1988, passing the mantle of Pittsburgh leadership onto his son Dan, who then had to watch his friendly rival, the Giants, win another Super Bowl in 1991. As they did in 2008, the Giants beat a heavily favored team in 1991, the Buffalo Bills, led by Irish-American quarterback Jim Kelly. The Giants again made it to the Super Bowl in 2001, but they lost badly.  Sadly, it was Wellington Mara’s last chance at another title. In 2006, Mara died at the age of 89.

In one widely reported story, while sitting in a pew at St. Patrick’s Cathedral during Mara’s funeral service, Bill Parcells tapped Dan Rooney on his shoulder and whispered: “The torch has been passed.” Parcells was referring to Rooney’s newfound status as the NFL’s lone elder statesmen. Rooney later was quoted as saying: “Bill has been a friend of mine for a long time and I have great respect for him, both as a person and a coach. What he said meant a lot to me.”

When Mara died, The New York Times Magazine noted: “He had an earthy, pug-nosed Irish face and an authentic New York accent, of the kind you hear now only in movies from the 30’s and 40’s. He was a Catholic who attended Mass daily and fathered 11 children. And as his eulogists kept pointing out, he was the last of the old-school sports-team owners, a throwback to football’s leather-helmet era.” Inheriting the torch from Mara meant a lot to Rooney because the Maras and Rooneys have been friendly rivals since the 1920s. It is an association that shows no signs of ending any time soon.

For proof of that, look sister actresses Kate Mara and Rooney Mara, whose name combines the two families. Kate has appeared in many TV shows as well as movies such as We Are Marshall and Shooter. Rooney got her start in a re-make of Nightmare on Elm Street, gained recognition as Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s ex-girlfriend in The Social Network, and is currently amazing audiences and critics alike as Lizbeth Salander in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a role that just earned the 26-year-old her first Oscar nomination for Best Actress. As you can tell by their names, they are members of the Giants clan, two of Wellington’s 40 grandchildren. Their mother, meanwhile, is Kathleen Rooney. She is a niece of current Steelers owner and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney.

The Early Days

Timothy J. Mara and Art Rooney had been friends, often frequenting the racetracks together. One possibly apocryphal story has it that the Irish duo’s bets one day were so profitable that Art Rooney promised to name his son Tim. Rooney indeed had a son and named him Tim. Mara – a New York native – purchased the football Giants (not to be confused with the baseball Giants of New York) in 1925. Mara’s nine-year-old son, Wellington, began working for the team as a ball boy.

Dan Rooney, meanwhile, was born in 1932, just before his dad, Art, purchased the Pittsburgh Steelers. At this time, college football was much more popular than the professional game. The Giants, who played their home games in the Polo Grounds in uptown Manhattan, are often credited with increasing the game’s prestige in the public eye. The main reason is a 1930 game against the Fighting Irish powerhouse of Notre Dame, designed as a fundraiser to assist New York’s homeless. The Giants won easily, a surprise in the eyes of many.

The Giants ultimately made it to eight football title games during the 1930s and 40s. In the 1950s they were led by stars Sam Huff, Frank Gifford and Roosevelt Brown.

The Steelers’ history is not quite as storied. As fate would have it, they lost their first game to the Giants and made the football post-season only once prior to the creation of the modern day NFL in the 1960s. However, they dominated the 1970s and have once again become a powerhouse, going 15-1 in 2004 and making it all the way to the Super Bowl winners’ podium the following year.

Creating the Modern NFL

It was in the 1960s and 1970s that the Maras and Rooneys each played key roles in creating the modern day NFL. The Maras saw early on that the league would be successful only if teams were given every chance to become competitive. That meant sharing television revenue equally, rather than allowing big city teams to dominate the market, thus giving them more money to spend on top
players.

Meanwhile, two existing football leagues merged in 1970.  Now operating as a single league, the NFL nevertheless had two distinct conferences.  The Giants were seen as members of the dominant conference. It is said that Wellington Mara convinced Rooney and the Steelers to join the supposedly weaker American Football Conference, to achieve a balance of power. The move swiftly made the league more competitive and, hence, more successful.

As Larry McCarthy wrote in Making the Irish American, Mara and Rooney agreed to do this “so that each (franchise) has a realistic opportunity of competing and winning. This strategy has helped transform the league from a collection of family run enterprises owned by the Maras (New York Giants), the Rooneys (Pittsburgh Steelers), the Modells (Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Ravens) and the Halas-McCaskeys (Chicago Bears) to a highly successful, multi-billion dollar, multinational sports enterprise.” It also led Timothy and Wellington Mara, and Art and Dan Rooney, into the Football Hall of Fame.

One Hill Left to Climb

The Rooney family is not merely dedicated to football. It has played a large role in Irish-American affairs, far beyond the mere fact that a 2004 biography of Art Rooney (by Andrew O’Toole) was titled Smiling Irish Eyes. President Obama named Dan Rooney Ambassador to Ireland in July, 2009. Previously, along with Sir Anthony O’Reilly, Rooney established the American Ireland Fund, which has secured millions of dollars for investment in the Irish economy.

The AIF’s achievements would have been “unthinkable twenty-five years ago when Dan Rooney and I staggered through that first dinner in New York,” O’Reilly once said. He added that Dan Rooney “is a symbol of the modern American dream; the poor family that came from Newry in County Down, who made their way through the tough North Side of Pittsburgh to the pinnacle of American football in their ownership of the Pittsburgh Steelers.”

Indeed, the Maras and Rooneys have achieved so much for so long that there is only one hill left to climb. They have yet to play against each other in the Super Bowl. With both the Giants and Steelers pointed in the right direction, perhaps next year’s Super Bowl XLVII will finally be the time. But this Sunday, when the Giants face off against the Patriots once again,  it may very well be the Maras and the Rooneys cheering together.

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