I met Dan Rooney one time, briefly, on a December day in the lee of Christmas. I was in Pittsburgh to interview Rod Woodson for an extensive profile -- it was 1994, I think, or maybe 1995 -- and we were sitting in an office at Three Rivers Stadium that was being used to store the company Christmas gifts.
And so there we were, Rod on one side of a desk and me on the other, brightly-wrapped packages stacked up around us. And then the door opened.
Santa Claus, aka Dan Rooney, stuck his head in the room.
"Hey, Rod," Rooney said. "How's it goin'?"
"Fine, Mr. Rooney, thank you," Woodson said.
Mr. Rooney. Two small words; a million layers of respect.
The respect spread out from that small office into the locker room, and then into the film room where then-coach Bill Cowher and his coaches holed up, and then out and out in concentric circles into the football world proper. It sprung not only from Rooney's stature as an owner -- on his watch, a franchise that had never won a playoff game won six Super Bowls, four of them with perhaps the greatest team ever assembled -- but from his stature as a human being.
The dignity with which he treated everyone, no matter how humble his station. The level head and concern for the greater good with which he approached league business. The small kindnesses and common touch he learned from his father, Art, the great Steelers patriarch, and which made him the last of the great owners who built the modern NFL -- and who were therefore fiercely protective of its image.
That image has taken some hits over the last decade, virtually all of them self-inflicted. But not because of Dan Rooney.
Upon his death yesterday at 84, the tributes unfurled, and with them came a sense of loss that went beyond simply the loss of the man himself. His passing leaves a vacancy that draws a line between what was and what is, and there will be no going back. There was the NFL of the Rooneys, a family heirloom presided over by patriarchs benevolent and otherwise; there is the NFL going forward, an immense corporate edifice lacking in great measure the Rooney warmth and human connection.
Protecting the brand is everything now, even as the league's increasingly cold pragmatism does damage to it. If the NFL has become the No-Fun League, it's earned that distinction honestly. And the manner in which the league has turned its back on long-time markets -- San Diego, Oakland, St. Louis -- does it no credit, either.
Who needs the Oakland Raiders, after all, when the Las Vegas Raiders can make you a bigger pile? Tradition, schmadition.
It is true, of course, that these sentiments have always been there, even in the old patriarchal days. And it is true that the Rooneys went along with all the recent cash grabs. But it's just as true that Dan Rooney was very often a voice of conscience and perspective.
That voice is stilled now.
We search in vain for its equal.