Categorized | Article, News

Kindness For Weakness – Misbehavior Is Relative In The World Of Professional Sports – Part II


By Matthew Marczi

As intimated in the first part of this article, the Pittsburgh Steelers hold a strong, upstanding reputation based on high character and family values that has served the organization well for the past 80 years. And by professional sports standards, the Rooney family most certainly can hold its collective head high for the job that it has done balancing the line between remaining principled and selling out for success.

But just like every professional sports franchise, the Steelers are in the business of making money, and making money means winning games. Sometimes, the players that can help you win games are those of questionable character that can get an organization in trouble down the road. So how does one navigate the tightrope bridging high character and on-field success without falling off?

In the Steelers’ case, they tend to err on the side of caution, though they also have a tendency to stick behind their players when they have reason to believe that their character transcends their transgressions.

This is a quality that descends from family patriarch Art Rooney, Sr. In The Pittsburgh Steelers: The Official Team History, his son, Art Rooney, Jr., is quoted as saying of his father that “he took the Golden Rule and put a little bit of the North Side in it”. He recounts his father saying, “treat everybody the way you\'d like to be treated. Give them the benefit of the doubt. But never let anyone mistake kindness for weakness”.

That sentiment could also be said to serve as the organization’s guiding light when it comes to handling its players’ discretions. The most famous instance before recent times came in 1973, during Art Sr.’s penultimate year of nominal organizational control. He and son Dan Rooney, who oversaw day to day operations by then, had quite a mess on their hands courtesy of defensive tackle Ernie “Fats” Holmes.

Without regurgitating his complicated and troubled backstory, which suffice it to say involved a life on the edge in more ways than one, the events leading up to his shooting and wounding a police officer in a helicopter on March 16, 1973 are recounted in The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, written by Chad Millman and Shawn Coyne, and excerpted on ESPN’s website.

In brief, Holmes grew up fearing failure. While he struggled as a rookie in 1971 to make the roster, his family back in Houston, Texas awaited his paychecks. That pressure did not help restrain his manic personality. By the waning days of winter in 1973, he was struggling both financially and emotionally, doing everything he can to support his family while anticipating a costly divorce.

He spoke to Dan Rooney about his plight, and upon invitation drove through the night from Texas to Pittsburgh. When he arrived in town and the offices at the facility were closed, he just kept driving. His paranoia exacerbated by the disappointment of yet another door seemingly slammed shut in his face, he began sensing that the other drivers on the road were out to get him.

He stopped at the scene of an accident to explain that the trucks around him were attempting to cut him off the road, but the officer ignored him. So he got back in his vehicle and kept driving. And the traffic kept closing in on him. And then he pulled out his shotgun, blasted through his window, and tried to shoot out the tires of passing motorists.

After finally blowing a tire and driving off the road, Holmes fled into a nearby field, where officers and a police helicopter pursued him. He began firing at the helicopter, hitting one officer in the ankle. And then he dropped the shotgun and raised his hands in the air, defeated.

Holmes phoned Rooney’s house from prison, and his wife relayed the message from his troubled player. Rooney had just spoken to him the day before about his circumstances and told him they would figure it out together. So he made good on his word.

The Rooney family understood their player, who he really was, and what drove him to his actions. As Art Rooney, Jr. later reflected, they “all thought he needed mercy”. So they paid for his legal representation, then paid his $45,000 bail, after which he was admitted to a psychiatric hospital for two months—paid for by the Rooney family—where he was diagnosed with acute paranoid psychosis.

Later that summer, Ernie Holmes won the starting defensive tackle job outright, alongside Joe Greene, to form the interior of what would become known as the Steel Curtain. He played for the Steelers until 1978, when he was finally traded due to weight problems.

Why did the Rooney family go through so much trouble for somebody who fired a shotgun at police officers? How could they put so much stock in their personal conversations with Holmes that led them to believe that the man transcended the actions?

In the third part of this series, the organization faces accusations of hypocrisy and double standards in the face their handling of a pair of domestic disputes involving two of their own players, James Harrison and Cedrick Wilson.

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About Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • walter mason

    Thanks for writing the amazing story that may not be known to younger readers. I seem to remember his court case coming up before some big games. We needed Fats to win the Super Bowl and he played..

  • steeltown

    Good article
    It really seems like in the case with Ta’amu they are giving this young man a chance to better himself, a chance to prove himself in hopes that he will become a better man to himself and his community. Makes you wonder exactly what went down with Rainey.. I still think possibly there was some sort of stipulation in his contract regarding legal trouble that he failed to meet

  • cencalsteeler

    Very nice article.

  • TJimmy

    Good article and perspective, Matthew…thanks

  • VaDave

    I think the deal with Rainey is he wasn’t that good. Oh, he was fast enough, but wasn’t real quick. Add to that, when you are that slight of build, eventually, he’s going to take a hit that will end it all. JMO.

  • steves

    Never knew some of this stuff happen to Ernie, what a life. Just goes to show if you go the extra mile to help people out it will come back to you. It was good he was diagnosed properly and seeked help cause he was a BIG part of the Steel Curtain of the 70′s. In 1976 the Steelers went 22 quarters without giving up a TD.

  • Christopher Wilkes

    Amazing what players could get away with back then without the media that there is today. I remember reading about this incident a few years back when the book, The Ones Who Hit the Hardest, came out. To think that the guy actually shot a cop, but was allowed to play later that year is just insane. I think he was given 4 years probation. Burress shoots himself and goes to jail for 2 years.

  • Shannon Stephenson

    Great article….never heard that.

  • walter mason

    I posted this story on the Trib about Ernie and it was prompty deleted. Its good to know the truth can be told here.

  • Rob

    Holmes actually had a real mental illness that required treatment and confinement. The law even includes that regarding defense of certain crimes due to state of mind. Rainey had a history of violence toward women and was already on a tight leash for past actions when he came to the team.

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