American football comes to Ireland

DUBLIN, Ireland — American flags flapped in the wind, blue smoke swirled from barbeques, and Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers presided over a game of American football.

It could have been a July 4th event in the United States. But this was Dublin, Ireland, where Rooney is the U.S. ambassador, and he was making history by staging an “Irish American Flag Football Classic” at his residence in the capital city’s Phoenix Park.

Rooney brought 32 members of his extended family to Dublin for the occasion, including his sons Art Rooney, team president of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and Dan, the Steelers' college scout. The pair were given two days to select and train opposing teams of Irish and American volunteers, the “Dublin 8s” and the “Phoenix Park Pirates,” for a challenge game as the centerpiece of an old-fashioned July 4th picnic.

Ireland's Taoiseach (prime minister) Brian Cowen took a break from watching World Cup games on television and was given the honor of tossing the coin.

The team rosters included embassy diplomats and marines, local Gaelic football, rugby and soccer players, and the neighbor’s kids — Ireland’s president Mary McAleese lives in a nearby wooded estate and her son, Justin, kitted out in yellow for the Dublin 8s and daughter, Emma, played in blue for the Pirates.

The idea of a first-ever American football game at the residence arose after Rooney presented his credentials to President McAleese on July 3rd last year. He discovered next day that the U.S. embassy staged an Independence Day baseball game on the 62-acre property.

“I thought, hey, if you can do a baseball game, you can have a football game,” Rooney told me.

The decision to replace baseball with football involved lengthy preparation. It took two months to prepare a football arena on the vast meadow in front of the elegant 230-year-old residence, which before Irish independence belonged to Britain’s Chief Secretary in Ireland. The task was undertaken by Peter McKenna, stadium director of Dublin’s Croke Park.

“The ambassador asked could we make a pitch,” said McKenna, making a last minute inspection as hundreds of Irish and American guests gathered on the sidelines."There was a lot of undulating ground and we had to lift the grass and fill in the holes to create a flat surface.”

He provided bleachers, American Football posts (made in Belfast) and giant television screens for live coverage and play-backs, and had the word “Steelers” painted on the thick-blade meadow grass and the ambassador’s seal of office in the middle.

McKenna constructed the pitch pro bono as a way of saying thank you to American team owners, including Rooney, who had provided advice for the reconstruction six years ago of the stands at Croke Park, the home of Gaelic Football, which now have a capacity of 82,000.

“The Croke Park people did a marvelous job,” said Rooney at the start of the event, which was sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce and Pepsico. As someone credited for the “Rooney Rule,” which requires NFL teams to interview minority candidates for management and coaching vacancies, I asked the ambassador what was the “Rooney Rule” on this occasion. He had ruled, he said, that it should be a non-contact game of flag football, played with only eight on each side as the ground was somewhat smaller than regulation size. Historic trees on the fringes could not be moved to make it bigger. These included a northern red oak planted by Vice President George H. W. Bush on a visit in 1983, and a giant spruce put there in 1868 by the Prince of Wales.

The one thing the ambassador could not guarantee was the cooperation of the notoriously fickle Irish summer weather.

“We walked around the pitch saying the rosary every evening and praying for sunshine,” the ambassador’s wife, Patricia, told me. The Rooneys are practicing Catholics and the ambassador attends mass every day, wherever his duties take him.

The gods were listening. After a morning of rain the clouds rolled away and the game was played in blazing sunshine. Cowen and most everyone else took off their jackets, munched on hot dogs, scooped up ice cream, and watched the Dublin 8s hammer the Pirates 28-15.

Over the loudspeakers commentator Paul Collins from Ireland’s Today FM radio station teased Art Rooney unmercifully, wondering how the Pirates trainer could hold up his head, and suggesting he don sunglasses to disguise himself on the seven-hour flight home.

After the game I asked Ambassador Rooney if he had an inside track on whether U.S. President Barack Obama had plans to visit Ireland.

“I have been urging him to come,” said Rooney. “We have installed a new basket ball hoop ready for him.”

Patricia Rooney said that her husband had been sending him post cards of Irish scenes, including one of a sheep, saying “This fellow is waiting to meet you.”

Problems at home such as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico had kept him from traveling abroad, said Dan Rooney. “But he wants to come.”