Rooney: Steelers had no interest in becoming "America's Team"

(Photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Steelers)

Talk of Fame Network

They’re not “America’s Team,” and, listening to Pittsburgh owner Dan Rooney, that’s just how the Steelers like it.

Speaking on last weekend’s Talk of Fame Network radio show, Rooney said the Steelers -- not Dallas -- could have been "America's Team" after NFL Films approached them in the 1970s with the idea of branding the club. But Rooney's father, Hall-of-Fame owner Art Rooney, didn't like the idea and rejected it.

“We discussed it whenever they called,” Rooney recalled, “and said, ‘Hey, we’re Pittsburgh’s team.’ It turned out very well.”

It did turn out very well. The Steelers won four Super Bowls in the 1970s and now hold an NFL-best six Lombardi Trophies – with Rooney appearing on the Talk of Fame as part of the program’s six-part Dynasty series. The Steelers might have won more NFL championships had they kept one of their draft picks from the 1950s, an all-city high-school quarterback named Johnny Unitas whom Rooney knew well.

Pittsburgh's all-city backup to Unitas, Rooney was the guy who drafted Unitas in 1955 after he left the University of Louisville. Unitas never stuck, released by the club before Baltimore acquired him, and the rest you know. But the obvious question is: What happened?

“Stupidity!” said Rooney. “I really thought a lot of him. In fact, I’m the one who drafted him, and I pushed for him. Our coaches didn’t like that I exercised my authority. They said, ‘Aww,, nah!’ They never gave him a chance. He did not take a snap the whole training camp. It’s a shame.”

Rooney tells a story how, one day when driving through downtown Pittsburgh with his father and then-head coach, Walt Kiesling, he noticed Unitas in a car ahead of him. His father told him to pull alongside him so he could speak to the quarterback, and Rooney did. After saying hello, Art Rooney wished Unitas luck.

“He said, ‘Johnny, it’s nice to talk to you, and I hope you go all the way,’ “ Rooney recalled. “Walter Kiesling, the coach, said, ‘He won’t get anywhere!’ He was wrong that time, too.”