Different dynasties, same dream

 

SUPER BOWL XLIII:The Rooneys are the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Bidwills own the Arizona Cardinals. TOM HUMPHRIES, in Tampa, gives the background. 

“Kathy,” I said as we boarded a Greyhound in Pittsburgh,

“Michigan seems like a dream to me now.”

It took me four days to hitch-hike from Saginaw.

I’ve come to look for America

America, Simon and Garfunkel.

COMING TO look for America at the Super Bowl, that pageant which best describes a people’s contentment with the arranged marriage of mammon and sport.

On the first paragraph of a new chapter of American history, the Super Bowl’s robust grip on the imagination of its creators is explainable as much by the event’s ability to always throw up stories which fit the dreamy narrative which America has created for itself as it is by reference to the more obvious themes of spectacle and money and the worship of success.

The Super Bowl is a State of the Union address delivered not in words but in images, metaphors and big, gaudy brush-strokes of primary colours. It comes usually with nachos and beer.

Super Bowl week. On media day, a young man called Troy Polamalu is accepting questions with the ritual disdain of the wealthy young athlete. Troy wears number 43 for his team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and what he does is he tackles very well.

His bark is bad but his bite is worse. When he tackles you, well, you stay tackled.

Troy’s hair is long, very long, and he keeps it braided into dreads. An opponent is quite entitled to pull Troy’s hair if he wants to stop Troy. Nobody wants to do that, though, cos it makes Troy mad and that’s not good. They say Troy hasn’t cut his locks since the year 2000 when a coach at USC asked him to get a trim.

That was nine years ago, but such are the statements which a modern athlete must make.

The Rooney family are Troy Polamalu’s employers. They came west from Newry in Co Down not too many generations ago, and it’s a decent guess without knowing them all that no Rooney has ever worn dreadlocks, not even as a sense of his moral outrage with the world. The Rooneys made the American dream their own. Made it their own in Pittsburgh, of all places.

Two quick stories. Art Rooney, first generation off the boat, was a man who liked a bet. In 1933 he went to Aqueduct Race Track in New York with a few bob in his pocket and came home that evening with $2,500. Did he use the money sensibly? After all, he was a young Irish Catholic graduate of Duquesne college in Pittsburgh. He bought a gridiron football club.

At the time they were called the Pirates, but we know them now as the Steelers. America wasn’t built by men who put all their money into hedge funds.

Four years later, while the Steelers were still struggling, as they would for 40 arid years, Art went to the races again. A two-day binge. Yonkers one day. Then Saratoga. There is some dispute over how much he set out with, but the highest estimate is $500. At the end of the first day he had $100,000 in his pocket. At the end of the second he had $338,000 in the same pocket. He lost a bet upon which he had $10,000 riding and announced that it was time to go home. Which he did.

“Katherine,” he said to his pregnant wife when he got home, “We never have to worry about money again.”

He would call the son his wife was carrying Tim, after the bookmaker he took the money from. The bookmaker was of identical stock, a man called Mara. Tim Mara had bought the New York Giants franchise eight years previously. He’d had the option of investing a spare $500 in the career of the boxer Gene Tunney or in this new gridiron franchise. He figured wisely that “the New York franchise to operate anything ought to be worth $500”. The Maras are still in joint ownership of the New York Giants.

Art Rooney was correct about never having to worry about money again. Today the Steelers are valued at $1.2 billion and the family owns Yonkers racetrack where the source spring of money was found.

Art was a remarkable man, but in the Rooney clan, while the smell of the emigrant boat was still on them, the jewel in the crown was Dan. Art got rich, but Dan went on to become a priest.

As young brothers the Rooneys would go to the fight tent in visiting carnivals. You could win $5 if you went a round with the carnival fighter. Art could go a round. Dan invariably knocked the carnival brawler out.

And he became a priest. Got into the knocking-heads-for-Jesus business. The Rooneys are Irish enough that a priest in the family meant more than a socially responsible ball club owner.

Not much has changed with them, but the American landscape around them won’t stay still.

THE ARIZONA Cardinals read the bible together after practice. Not all of them, but a large group of them. The reading is lead by their quarterback, Kurt Warner, a man with enough years on him and enough ostentatious piety about him to have sat beside Jesus in school and carried His books home. It’s harmless enough, all this fuss Kurt makes about having God on his speed dial, but probably nobody would like it so much if Kurt Warner were Muslim and the lads were reading from the Koran.

It’s sort of quaint that they pray. If there is a patron saint of ailing football clubs he has overlooked the Cardinals just as wantonly as he has abandoned Leeds United. The Cardinals are the longest existing professional club in American football history. For pretty much all of that time they have served as the best punchline. They are the team who robbed Pottsville of its glory.

Pottsville? A century or less ago the place was a coalmining town which bustled and hummed to such a measure that it was nicknamed “Queen of the Anthracite”. Today it’s a decimated little town with a population under 15,000 and an old grievance. People there insist that when the Pottsville Maroons defeated the Chicago Cardinals on December 6th, 1925, the NFL championship belonged to Pottsville.

Seems reasonable. It was the championship decider, after all. At the time, however, all hell broke out.

The Maroons had been founded in the early 1920s, playing first as the Pottsville Eleven and then, having been sent a batch of jerseys of that colour, as the Maroons. By 1924 they were champions of the Pennsylvania Anthracite League. Despite the drab jerseys they were a colourful bunch, and when they weren’t practising they spent their time around the firehouse, drinking the local brew, Yuengling, playing cards and tossing footballs about.

They won plenty of games though, losing just once in 1925 to their local rivals, the Frankford Yellowjackets (who would go on to become the Philadelphia Eagles). The Maroons lost their first clash of the year to the Yellowjackets 20-0, but won the return 49-0.

At this time Pottsville and the Chicago Cardinals (now the Arizona Cardinals) were the league’s big two. A “championship game” was to be staged between them at the end of the year. This clash of the titans was duly staged at Comiskey Park on Chicago’s southside in conditions of bitter cold and deep snow. The Maroons won 21-7 and captured the 1925 NFL championship.

However, it was announced soon after that the season wasn’t officially over. The NFL, a chaotic sort of democracy at the time, announced that the championship would go to the team with the best regular season record. The Maroons had scheduled a lucrative game with Notre Dame for after the season. Interest in this tussle with a storied college team was so great that the game had to be moved to Philadelphia.

When this news was announced, the Frankford Yellowjackets launched a protest, saying they were scheduled to play a game in the city that day and that the Maroons were infringing on their turf.

The Maroons went ahead with the game, viewing it as a major fillip for their fledgling league. But they were suspended, making them ineligible for the title they had just won. They beat Notre Dame 9-7 but lost the title.

Seeing what was happening, the Cardinals, then owned by the O’Brien family (who probably weren’t French in origin), muscled up their record by arranging two late-season games with teams who had effectively been disbanded. They were awarded the title. Thus the Chicago Cardinals’ first and only national success was won.

Even having entered into the spirit of the Pottsville heist, the Cardinals didn’t attempt to take credit for the win until eight years later, in 1933, when they were acquired by a man called Charlie Bidwill. The sale of the Cardinals was completed within months of Art Rooney’s acquisition of the Pittsburgh franchise. The Rooneys still own the Steelers. The Bidwills still run the Cardinals. Different folks, different strokes though.

In Pottsville, they still think of the 1925 Maroons team as the “world champions”. The Arizona Cardinals don’t make a big thing out of it at all, but, hey, the Cardinals are alive and at the Super Bowl and the Maroons are recalled in a series of bars in a dead mining town.

WITHOUT THE Rooneys it’s possible there would be no NFL. When times have been mad and the lust for money has been crazy, the Rooneys have been the voice of reason. Not just that; in their fidelity to Pittsburgh and the perceived values of the city, the Rooneys have been exemplars of the loyalty and discipline which their sport is supposed to promote.

When Art Rooney passed on in 1989 at the age of 87 (he turned up to work every day until a stroke took him), the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra gave a free performance for the city in his honour, statues were erected to the man they called The Chief and there was an appreciation of his influence.

In 1969, having waited 40 years without seeing any success at all from his franchise, he appointed a coach called Chuck Noll. In his first season Noll won just won game and lost 13. Rooney stuck with him. By the end of the 1970s the franchise had four Super Bowl titles and had come to define the modern game with its steel-curtain defence.

Such was the way with Rooney. His coaches never changed unless they had to. He used two in 40 years, eventually replacing Noll with Bill Cowher.

And he was progressive. In 1932, when graduating from Duquesne, he asked a classmate and a ball player, one Roy Kemp, if, instead of going straight into law school, he might not consider playing football part-time for a semi-pro team he owned and studying part-time too? When Rooney bought the Steelers, Kemp played the first season until he quit after being asked to leave the team hotel in New York. Kemp was black.

There was one other black player in the league. Joe Lillard of the Cardinals. Both quit at season’s end. Lillard had a short fuse and was sick to death of the racial abuse he received on the pitch as well as off. The league wouldn’t have another player of his colour until 1946.

Kemp walked away more quietly. He was asked by the NAACP on the day after the hotel incident if he wished to file a complaint against the hotel. His answer was that he had no wish to embarrass Art Rooney.

THE AMERICAN Dream comes in all sizes and flavours. Michael Bidwill is giving a press conference. He talks about the Cardinals’ organisation. How settled it is in Phoenix.

There is an irony here, in that, having migrated south in two leaps to escape the cold weather, the Cardinals now play indoors at the University of Phoenix stadium – to escape the heat. They have had 32 successive full houses since they locked the weather out.

But really, Michael wants to talk about his dad, Bill Bidwill. He hopes this Sunday he will see his father hoist a trophy.

In late 1932, while entertaining some journalists and business people upon his yacht, the ReyMar, the gadfly and flamboyant sports entrepreneur Charlie Bidwill listened sympathetically to Dr David Jones complain about how the Chicago Cardinals, whom he had purchased three years earlier from the O’Brien family, were bleeding him dry.

Jones had paid $25,000. Bidwill, when the night was over, had agreed to pay $50,000 for the franchise, and by the time he got all the money together it was September 1933. The Bidwills and the Rooneys were in a fledgling league together.

Things have stayed that way since. Through thick and thin.

Charlie Bidwill died in 1947 without having been asked to celebrate any Cardinals’ successes. The year of his death was, as it happened, the most storied in the Cardinals’ sorry history. They won a play-off series to become divisional champions. Not exactly the brass ring, but more than they were used to.

In late 1942, for instance, the Cardinals had started a run of 29 consecutive defeats, and in 1944 had actually briefly amalgamated with Art Rooney’s Steelers to produce a truly lamentable team. The team produced by this marriage of dire necessity was intended to be known as the CardPitts (how lovely), but came to be called the Carpets so often did they get walked on. The experiment lasted a year.

After Charlie’s death, Bidwill’s widow, Violet, took over the ownership of the team assisted by her financial adviser and soon-to-be husband Walter Wolfner. His lupine name made him the perfect baddie.

Wolfner is described as a coffee mogul from St Louis. He found he couldn’t live in the same town as the owner of the Chicago Bears, George Halas. The Bidwills and Halas had rubbed along famously in the windy City, one often lending the other cash to meet the payroll in bad times. But Violet Bidwill had fallen out with Halas in a row over the quarterback Bobby Layne. When Wolfner ushered Mrs Bidwill up the aisle he inherited the feud and, as a sportswriter of the time noted, “on him it looked natural”.

Having failed to interest Halas in an offer of $500,000 cash if he left town, it wasn’t too long before the Cardinals were granting Halas and CBS television their joint wish to make Chicago a one-team town. In 1960, the Cardinals lifted their cassocks and moved to St Louis.

Two years later Violet died. She left her team and pretty much everything else to her sons, Charles and Bill, young men at the time. To Wolfner, of whom she had presumably tired, she left five drying oil wells in Oklahoma.

Wolfner went to law and, in a wonderfully melodramatic case, played his whole card with the spiteful panache of a man dropping a grenade into his enemy’s living-room. Early on in probate court Wolfner announced that Charles (aka Stormy) and Bill were, in fact, adopted, and illegally adopted at that.

News of their adoption came as a shock to the Bidwill boys, but a judge ruled the adoption to have been legal and the Bidwills retained ownership of the hapless Cardinals.

The two jointly ran the team until September 12th, 1972, when Bill Bidwill bought his brother’s share. The club has got through 37 head coaches in 87 years and has developed something of a signature style in industrial relations matters. Dismissed coaches tend to know first of their fate when they turn up and find the locks have been changed.

THROUGH THE lean years, nay decades, with the Steelers, Art Rooney always did what his son Dan does today. He would walk to the stadium on game day greeting fans and workers and players alike. And he identified with their sufferings.

“If I were sitting out there, I’d boo Art Rooney, too,” he once said of the long, lean years. “But they are my people and this is my town and it does my heart good just to be here.”

It’s like this with the Rooneys. When US Senator John Heinz was killed in a plane/helicopter collision in 1991, Gov Robert Casey of Pennsylvania came to Art Rooney Jnr and implored him to take the Heinz seat. Rooney declined. Instead, he became president of the Steelers. That way he could make more of a difference to the city.

IN 1988, Bill Bidwill shook hands with a few Arizonans on a plan to bring the Cardinals to Phoenix in exchange for basically a free stadium. So they upped and left St Louis and got to Phoenix with nothing in writing, only to find the Arizona contacts up to their necks in the savings and loan scandal which would mark banking in the state forever (and stain John McCain’s reputation).

The Cardinals entered a new era of struggle.

Bill Bidwill eventually handed over the running of the club to his son Michael, who has brought the Cardinals at last to this promised land, contesting a national title the winning of which would end the curses laid on the club by the good people of Pottsville.

They play the club of another dynasty.

Tomorrow two vibrant strands of the American dream intertwine again on a sunny field in Tampa; the Super Bowl, that man-made winter feast, has its eternal themes renewed once more.