Pittsburgh Steeler Catholics’ Super Bowl Faith
PITTSBURGH — Prayer works in professional football.
Just ask Father David Bonnar, who has celebrated Mass for nine years for players and coaches of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The Steelers are seeking their fifth Super Bowl victory Feb. 5 against the Seattle Seahawks in Detroit.
Perhaps more than any other professional sports team, the Steelers are known for Catholic ownership — “The Righteous Rooneys” — and major contributions to the Church. Steelers’ owner Dan Roone attends daily Mass with his wife, Patricia, and is known throughout Pittsburgh for humility and generous contributions to Catholic endeavors.
“If you want a successful life, you have to put yourself in the hands of God,” Rooney said, as his team prepared for Super Bowl XL. “I’m not saying God runs the ball for us, but it’s tremendously helpful to be in relationship with him when striving to achieve.”
Though most NFL teams train during the off-season right outside their corporate headquarters, the Steelers train at the St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, PA. Rooney told the Register it’s “inspirational” to work in the presence of Catholic brothers, deacons and priests.
Archabbot Douglas Nowicki of Saint Vincent’s said Rooney inspires most everyone who knows him, because he’s fearless in his faith.
“In our American culture, it’s considered a sign of sophistication to have your religion on Sunday and then neatly separate it from your professional life the rest of the time,” Archabbot Nowicki said. With the Rooneys, he said, there is no split. “It’s that integrity and wholeness that has won them the respect of people in every walk of life.”
But not the respect of everyone, Rooney conceded.
“I’ve had people call us the ‘Righteous Rooneys’ in a condescending way, but I don’t care about that,” Rooney said.
Most in Pittsburgh know Rooney as an ordinary average guy who just happens to own the Steelers. Getting a moment with Rooney is no more difficult than making an appointment with Jesus — in the Eucharist, that is..
“He treats everyone he encounters with tremendous respect, and everyone in Pittsburgh knows that if you want to find Dan Rooney, go to morning Mass,” Archabbot Nowicki said.
Rooney says his lifestyle reflects the way he was brought up, and the way millions have grown up in Pittsburgh: Jesus first, football second. Friends say Rooney simply carries on the legacy started by his father — the late Art Rooney, who founded the Steelers as the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1933.
“Art Rooney Sr., known around town as ‘The Chief,’ would attend the funeral of any priest in the area who died,” recalled Father Ron Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh. “When I was 10 or 11, a friend and I saw him on the street outside of a priest’s funeral. We walked up to him and he just couldn’t have been nicer. He dropped everything and took time to get to know us. The whole Rooney family is that way. That’s why football is almost like a religion in Pittsburgh.”
Former offensive lineman Jim Sweeney grew up in Pittsburgh, and looked up to Art Rooney as a role model. Sweeney served as an altar boy until he was drafted by the New York Jets in 1984 — at age 21. As an altar boy, he often encountered Art Rooney — who attended daily Mass at a variety of parishes throughout town.
“He told me to attend Mass every day,” recalled Sweeney, who played for the Steelers the last four years of his 16-year career. “I’ve taken that advice as best I can.”
Sweeney said Art Rooney had such genuine respect for the children he met at Mass that he remembered their names and the details they shared with him.
“When I was drafted into the NFL by the Jets, Art Rooney sent me a letter wishing me well, and telling me that he had known my grandfather — who had been dead for 35 years,” Sweeney said.
Bishop Donald Wuerl said the Steelers and the Rooneys have quietly bolstered the morale and financial welfare of the Pittsburgh Diocese for more than 70 years.
“Dan Rooney, though a private man who does nothing to promote himself, is a fixture in the diocese,” Bishop Wuerl said. “The Holy Family Institute, the Cardinal Wright Regional School, Catholic Charities — the list goes on and on. His faith and his values permeate the Pittsburgh Steelers organization which is the real reason why, win or lose, the Steelers are so important to our city and region.”
Though Pittsburgh may be the undisputed Notre Dame of professional football, it’s not the only team known for supporting the Church. New York Giants’ co-owner Wellington Mara, who died last year, was a daily communicant and a big contributor to Catholic causes in New York, for example.
To win this latest Super Bowl trip, the Steelers had to get past the Denver Broncos — a team owned by Catholic philanthropist Pat Bowlen. His team’s charity raised more than $1 million recently for the Capuchin order’s ministries to Denver’s poor and homeless. Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput, a Capuchin Franciscan, was Bowlen’s guest for consecutive Super Bowl titles in ’98 and ’99.
“The Broncos and Pat Bowlen have been supportive of organizations in our archdiocese, and they’ve been very involved with the ministries of the Capuchins both at the Samaritan Shelter and in other ways,” Archbishop Chaput said. “As a Capuchin I’m very grateful.”
Though not reputed as a major Catholic benefactor, the Seattle Seahawks, like the Broncos and Steelers, accommodate Mass as part of a routine for Catholic players and coaches.
“We have a chapel and we invite a priest to perform Mass,” said Lane Gammel, assistant director of public relations for the Seahawks. “For away games the advance person always lines up a priest and makes sure Mass is available at the team hotel.”
Dan Rooney says it’s undeniable that religion’s a hit in professional sports, and he hopes the sporting world may be a microcosm for what’s to come in other segments of society.
“You’re talking to me because my team’s in the Super Bowl,” Rooney said. “But I’m telling you that faith and religion are important to everyone, no matter what they’re doing, whether they know that or not. We must be in relationship with the Lord at all times to get the most out of life.”
Wayne Laugesen is based in
A Football for the Pope
One of Dan Rooney’s more simple contributions, as fate would have it, became one of the last gifts ever handed to Pope John Paul II.
“Dan Rooney had met Pope John Paul II a few years back,” says Archabbot Douglas Nowicki, of the Benedictine St. Vincent Archabbey in Latrobe, Penn., near Pittsburgh. Archabbot Nowicki said that in September 2004, he “handed the Holy Father this football that Dan had asked the team to sign for him. The Holy Father mumbled, ‘Rooney. Football.’ The Pope was very much a sportsman, and he was always interested in how the Steelers were doing because he knew Dan Rooney.”
Will Steelers Pray for Seahawks?
Pittsburgh Bishop Donald Wuerl and local clergy credit the Rooney family tradition with bringing the entire city of Pittsburgh a bit closer to Jesus.
“The night of my first Steelers Mass I asked if anyone had special prayers,” recalled Father David Bonnar, pastor of Pittsburgh’s St. Bartholomew parish. Former offensive lineman Jim Sweeney, who’d attended Pittsburgh’s Seton-LaSalle Catholic High School with Father Bonnar, spoke up. Sweeney, in a Gospel-of-Matthew “love your enemies” moment, suggested praying for the Dallas Cowboys — the opposing team.
“God heard our prayer and the Cowboys trounced us,” Farther Bonnar said, laughing. “The next week [quarterback] Mike Tomczak suggested we not pray for the opposing team. We won that game.”
- February 5-11, 2006