Roger Goodell, Dan Rooney, Mike Tomlin, Art Rooney II, and John Madden in Latrobe in 2010 (AP)
The sound of a single-engine, propeller plane flying over the St. Vincent campus made for a surreal sight on the eve of Steelers training camp.
The aircraft was reminiscent of the Beechcraft Bonanza that Dan Rooney would pilot to Arnold Palmer Regional Airport for Steelers training camp.
After practice, he would fly over Chuck Noll Field and tilt his wing, a tip of the cap from the friendly skies.
“That was something,” Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said, “we all looked forward to.”
For all of the talk of holdouts from training camp, the most important Steeler missing Thursday was Dan Rooney, the team chairman who died in April at age 84.
“It was strange, walking down on that field without him here,” Steelers president Art Rooney II said of his father. “You look around and there's a lot of things that remind you of him. So, obviously, it's going to be an adjustment.”
Reporting day at Steelers training camp is something of a circus, a show of one-upsmanship that sees players go to great lengths to arrive in style, from Antonio Brown by chauffeur in a 1931 Rolls Royce to James Harrison blasting sirens in a fire truck.
The 39-year-old Harrison even joked he would skydive if playing next year. Funny, but Dan Rooney outdid them all without even trying. He flew in by personal plane and was chauffeured around in a golf cart, oftentimes by Colbert, who cherishes that time spent together.
“You still look for him. That's not going to fade away anytime soon, nor should it,” said Colbert, like Rooney, a North Catholic graduate. “He just taught you with every encounter, you learned something from him.
“We have to take what he taught us and not only live it but let's pass it on to the next generation so even though they don't get to know him, we can pass along some of the lessons he taught us.”
There is a reverence around the Steelers for Dan Rooney, much like there was for his father, Art Sr. Where the elder Rooney was known as The Chief, they call his son The Ambassador, after serving as ambassador to Ireland.
“I miss The Ambassador already,” said Steelers radio color analyst Tunch Ilkin, who played tackle from 1980-93. “Camp's not going to be the same. I felt that way when The Chief died back in 1988. That first camp without The Chief, you missed him. Same thing with The Ambassador. That he's not here, it's going to be felt.”
Rooney's absence will be felt in Latrobe, where the Steelers are holding training camp for the 52nd year, almost as much as Arnold Palmer. The legendary golfer died in September, and Palmer's private jet provided a tribute with a flyover at his memorial service at St. Vincent Basilica.
While the talk here Thursday centered around the 11th-hour signing of left tackle Alejandro Villanueva and the holdout of Pro Bowl running back Le'Veon Bell in protest of his franchise tag, the Steelers spent some time remembering Dan Rooney. They will wear a black-and-gold patch with a shamrock and his initials on their uniforms this season.
Colbert noted this will be a year full of remembrances of Rooney, public and private, one that will hit home when the Steelers board their charter and The Ambassador isn't in his front-row seat next to Art II.
“I think that we will do a number of things to try to remember him and celebrate his life and everything he meant to the organization and a lot of individuals in a lot of different ways,” Art II said. “It's going to be, for a lot of us, a bit of a strange trip.”
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said the team's intentions are to honor The Ambassador with how they proceed professionally and personally. The key is for the Steelers to play — and play to win.
That's what makes training camp distractions such as Bell's holdout so unsettling: The Steelers reached the AFC championship game last season but missed the chance to give Dan Rooney a Super Bowl send-off. This year, they have the talent to honor his memory by winning a seventh Lombardi Trophy.
“I think about him quite a bit,” Tomlin said. “Obviously, an important event such as today, reporting up here, you can't help but think about him and the level of excitement that he would have. I'm sure that he's watching us.”
That was the reminder the Rev. Paul Taylor, the monk who serves as St. Vincent's executive vice president, shared with Art II: His father's spirit is with us.
Every reminder of The Ambassador, whether it's the sound of a plane or an empty seat, should be a sign to pass down his life lessons to the next generation, just as Steelers ownership has through the Rooney family.
“When I'm leaving campus, a lot of nights I stop at the monastery or basilica and say a prayer,” Art II said after his first opening practice at St. Vincent without his father. “I'll be doing that and probably light a candle for him.”
For the Steelers and St. Vincent, it will be an eternal flame.