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Rooney comes to life in The Chief

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Published: Thursday, January 10, 2013

Updated: Thursday, January 10, 2013 00:01

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As the lights go out the audience is transported to an office. The single wooden desk sits in the left rear corner facing the open office, adorned with a rotary telephone and lots of scattered papers. Photographs line the wall behind the desk and sit atop the tables in the front left and right corners of the room. It is March 1976 and this is Three Rivers Stadium.

The Chief opens with Arthur J. Rooney, Sr., the owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers in his office. The Steelers are a season removed from winning back-to-back Super Bowls. By this time Rooney has relinquished control of day-to-day decisions to his son Dan, but he is still the Chairman of the Board of Directors.

The Chief,  written by Rob Zellers and Gene Collier and directed by Ted Pappas, is about Arthur J. Rooney, Sr., his life and how the Steelers are intertwined into it.

The Chief captures the very essence of the man who bought the Steelers and made them into one of the most successful sports franchises of all-time. The one-act, one-man play takes place solely in Rooney’s office with no interruptions. It is as if the audience is in the office with Rooney for an hour and half and he does his best to give them his undivided attention. Gene Collier one of the writers of the play, also writes for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and during this time period he covered the Steelers, therefore he is best suited to create an accurate depiction of Rooney.

Also Rooney is the kind of guy who is the same whether he is in the public eye or behind a closed door, so you get the sense that what you saw and heard from him through the media was really him. The main focus of this play is to show who Rooney was as a person, neither flawless nor rotten. He was just an average guy who happened to turn a football team into one of the best in the league. It is a story of hope and inspiration, but most of all it is a journey through the life of a good man. The whole play is simple Rooney telling stories about his life, with a few interruptions from the ringing phone to talk about his plans for the evening.

Tom Atkins, who plays Rooney, is one of the most well-known Pittsburgh actors ever. He has been in plays and television shows all across the country. He is perfect for the part and he plays it very well. Everything from the way he smokes the cigar to the way he gestures with his hands while he is talking looks so natural and makes you feel like it is Rooney up on that stage and not an actor’s portrayal. He is clad in an overcoat, sweater, shirt and tie. His combination of a Pittsburgh and Irish accent are done perfectly.

As the stories flow we hear Rooney growing up. After a very brief career in politics he was approached about owning a professional football franchise. He agreed and bought the team. The team was on the verge of collapsing because of the financial strain, but then he and a couple of his close friends went to a racetrack and made enough money to dig the team out of the hole and keep it afloat for years to come. This is the basis of the rumor that he won the team at the racetrack.

The play finishes with a moment that changed Rooney and his team’s fate, but he didn’t see it. That moment was in 1972 during the divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, two years after the merger. The Steelers were losing 7-6 with about a minute left as Rooney was already on the elevator to greet the defeated players. Suddenly the crowd erupted and he exited the elevator to mass chaos. He realized the impossible had happened, the Steelers had won their first ever playoff game.

Rooney reflects on how the “Immaculate Reception” turned the trajectory of the team towards their first championship. He questions whether that one play was all the difference and whether his team would have been the same had they not had that moment. Then he watches the play again on a projector in his office.

The Chief is a masterful piece of work that will make an audience laugh, cry and everything in between. This is one of the most accurate portrayals of any figure in sports and it is done in such a fun and exciting way. The Pittsburgh Public Theater production will be showing at the O’Reilly Theater until January 12 and tickets are available at the box office. A student discount is available with a student ID.

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