The Maras and the Rooneys By Tom Deignan The long and enduring relationship of two Irish-Amer
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.