Dan Rooney, the longtime Pittsburgh Steelers owner who died on Thursday at age 84, lived a remarkable life.
One of the more interesting aspects of his full life was how, as a lifelong Republican before 2008, he became a devoted supporter of Democrat Barack Obama and later became Obama’s U.S. ambassador to Ireland.
Until 2008 Rooney hadn’t been deeply involved in politics, aside from supporting his son Jim’s unsuccessful campaign for U.S. Senate in 2001. But a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette story from 2008 said Rooney was impressed with Obama, particularly a campaign speech he gave in Iowa. Although Rooney was 76, he had a youthful exuberance for the presidential candidate.
“He loved how enthusiastic young people were getting for him, and when you get to my father’s age, you start to hope the future is bright for generations beyond,” Jim Rooney said in the Post-Gazette story. “Obama, to my father, was just so fresh.”
A bond was formed between the two when Obama and Rooney met at a campaign stop in Pittsburgh in April of 2008 and had a long conversation. Rooney started publicly supporting Obama and even presented Obama a Steelers jersey at a rally – which understandably didn’t go over well with all Steelers fans, the Post-Gazette reported.
In 2009 Obama nominated Rooney as U.S. ambassador to Ireland. Rooney had a strong love for Ireland, and the job wasn’t a ceremonial one.
“He got there and realized quickly that it was a full-time job,” Art Rooney II, Dan’s son, told Sports Business Daily in 2014. “And then he made it much more than a full-time job. It became his passion.”
In December of 2012 Rooney stepped down from his position and returned home shortly after the death of his daughter Rita.
In an op-ed piece for the Post-Gazette upon his resignation, Rooney wrote: “I have had a lifelong commitment to advancing the relationship between the American and Irish people and building peace on this beautiful island, but I came unexpectedly into politics and diplomacy. It has been an honor and privilege to represent President Barack Obama and the United States of America as ambassador to Ireland.
“President Obama charged me to protect and build the historic and deep friendship between our two countries. I am pleased to say this relationship, which is built on enduring family ties, a common heritage and shared values, is the strongest it has ever been. Ours is not a foreign relationship between two countries; ours is a shared kinship between two great peoples.”
There was an outpouring of grief from NFL circles upon the news of Rooney’s death, and Obama also released a statement about his friend.
“Dan Rooney was a great friend of mine, but more importantly, he was a great friend to the people of Pittsburgh, a model citizen, and someone who represented the United States with dignity and grace on the world stage,” Obama said on Thursday in a statement. “I knew he’d do a wonderful job when I named him as our United States Ambassador to Ireland, but naturally, he surpassed my high expectations, and I know the people of Ireland think fondly of him today. And I know the people of Pittsburgh, who loved him not only for the Super Bowl championships he brought as the owner of the Steelers, but for the generosity of spirit, mourn his passing today. Michelle and I offer our condolences to the Rooney family, some of the most gracious and thoughtful people we know – even as we celebrate the life of Dan Rooney: a championship-caliber good man.”
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