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Owners worlds apart

Dan Rooney remembers a world most fans of the National Football League could hardly imagine.

He remembers when the team his father, Art, founded in 1933 -- called the Pirates for the first seven years of its existence -- almost never made the playoffs and struggled every year for financial survival.

They even had to schedule "home" games out of town to avoid going head to head with the much more popular baseball club of the same name.

He remembers the years of the Second World War.

That's when the Pittsburgh franchise, renamed the Steelers, had to temporarily merge with Philadelphia ("the Steagles") and with the Chicago Cardinals ("Card-Pitt") just to stay afloat.

He remembers, into the 1960s, long after the 1958 title game between the New York Giants and Baltimore Colts that finally put the NFL on the map, the Steelers were run out of a single office in the down-and-out Roosevelt Hotel. His father, who, they called the Chief, and his general manager worked at desks pushed together in one room, often sharing their space with the poor, transient residents from upstairs.

He remembers, until the 1970s, until the Steelers' Super Bowl dynasty, when Art Rooney and his big cigar became everyone's favourite owner, and the old man wasn't even particularly beloved in his own hometown.

With the death of Giants' owner Wellington Mara last fall, Dan Rooney is the last living link to that more modest, more humble NFL. (There are a couple of original American Football League owners still alive and active, Lamar Hunt in Kansas City and Ralph Wilson in Buffalo, but since that league kicked off in 1960, they're relative Johnny-come-latelys). He was a year old when his father started the team, and he grew up in the family business. Now, while continuing as the Steelers' chairman (and in many ways the NFL's ancestral memory and its conscience), he has passed on most day-to-day operations to his son, Arthur Rooney II.

It's not quite a mom-and-pop business these days, not in the multibillion-dollar world of big-league professional football, but still the Steelers are a homey remnant of an era that now seems as distant as the stone age.

The sort of people who own NFL teams now are an entirely different breed.

They've made their millions -- and often, billions -- elsewhere. They're wealthy hobbyists, like Paul Allen, the proprietor of the Steelers' opponent in this week's Super Bowl, the Seattle Seahawks.

Allen, according to Forbes Magazine, is the seventh richest person on the planet, thanks to the little computer company he co-founded with Bill Gates, called Microsoft. He has used his wealth to pursue his interests the way the rest of us might start collecting stamps. Allen enjoys basketball, and so purchased the Portland Trail Blazers of the National Basketball Association.

He loves the music of Jimi Hendrix, and a grateful world thanks him for building the Experience Music Project in Seattle. He's put money into the world's first commercial spaceship, into the search for extra terrestrial intelligence and into a project dedicated to mapping the human brain. Allen's also always had a thing for football, which is why the Canadian Football League once tried to sell him an expansion team for Portland. To that end, they staged an exhibition in the city's decrepit minor-league ballpark featuring Doug Flutie and the Calgary Stampeders.

He stood on the sidelines that day, looking typically dishevelled, as though he'd taken a wrong turn en route to the hot-dog stand and in the end somehow resisted the CFL's siren song.

In the NFL, Allen doesn't often show up for owners meetings, doesn't push his own agenda like a Jerry Jones and has nothing in common with the likes of Rooney (though Rooney says that the few times he's met him, he seemed like an awfully nice guy).

Well perhaps a bit more than nothing. Back in the days when Allen and Gates were merely nerds with a bright idea, maybe they worked in their own kind of Roosevelt Hotel, maybe they understood long odds and the romance of a long-shot cause and how tough it was battling through disbelief.

Football's his toy, not his vocation, and that's the way it will be for all of them, eventually. But if he gets a chance to chat with Rooney this week, he should listen hard when the old man says the kind of thing he was saying yesterday in Detroit.

"I'm just a regular guy from Pittsburgh," he said. "Every day is fun. I've never had a year when I wasn't happy with the Steelers and what we did. Never."

That, however many billions are in the bank, sounds like the right approach.

Old-fashioned. On the verge of extinction. But, also, the way it ought to be.

sbrunt@globeandmail.com

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