The Maras and the Rooneys
By Tom Deignan
The long and enduring relationship of two Irish-American sporting families.
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 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 at up-and-coming actress Kate Mara. She has appeared in many TV shows as well as movies such as We Are Marshall and Shooter. As you can tell by her name, Mara is a member of the Giants clan, one of Wellington's 40 grandchildren. Kate's mother, meanwhile, is Kathleen Rooney. She is a niece of current Steelers owner 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.