Mike Brown knew Dan Rooney for more than 60 years.
In the end, even though Mike Brown's Bengals and Dan Rooney's Steelers became one of the NFL's signature rivalries, they had more in common than not.
"I respected him. I liked him. I always thought of him as a friend down deep," said a visibly shaken Brown after hearing the news late Friday afternoon that Rooney had passed away at age 84. "We understood the trials and tribulations that go along with participation in the league. We probably had a competitive instinct to beat the other guy on the field. But off the field it's not that way at all."
Like Rooney, Brown was a high school quarterback who helped a larger-than life father run an NFL team and then succeeded him before turning over the day-to-day operations to his own offspring. Brown is two years younger than Rooney and has known him more than 60 years. They met, naturally, at an NFL meeting when Brown was in college and his father Paul coached and ran the Browns while Art Rooney Jr. ran the Steelers.
"We sat on the periphery of the meeting in easy chairs in a room that was no bigger than this office," Brown said. "It was a growing process over the years. We understood each other's problems and we talked regularly, but I wouldn't say unusually so."
The courtly, gentlemanly Rooney left his mark in the easiest of ways that personified his title of "Mr. Ambassador," that President Obama bestowed on him with the Ireland appointment. Whenever the Bengals beat the Steelers and you were in the grim post-game elevator with him, he would sadly extend his hand and offer, "Nice game."
After one of those losses in Pittsburgh, Rooney still hosted Nancy Brown, Mike's wife, and her friends in his office. After one game in Pittsburgh, when Mike Brown was walking out of the locker room after a Steelers win, Rooney was in the foyer and came across to shake his hand.
"He had no need to do that, but he did," Brown said. "It would be things like that. Those things registered with me and, in all honesty, I treasure their memory."
When realignment raised its head in 2002 with eight four-team divisions, Brown wanted the Bengals to stay with the Steelers and Browns and knew Rooney's support would pretty much seal it.
"One time I said to him it probably meant more to me than it meant to him," Brown said. "In a way I think I impacted him with that statement. He came to back the idea. Probably not as full-heartedly as I, but he did. He probably would have been open to bringing in someone other than us, but we didn't want to do that and I think in the end he came to accept that."
It was a two-way street.
Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis, who broke into the league under Rooney in 1992 as the Steelers linebackers coach, was hired in Cincinnati in the first year of the "Rooney Rule." With Rooney as the chair, the diversity committee made it law that teams had to interview at least one minority for a head coaching vacancy. It's clear that long before the job came open that the Brown family had high regard for Lewis' work in the old AFC Central at Pittsburgh and Baltimore and that he was going to get a shot for the job without the rule.
But Rooney felt Brown had supplied a blueprint for the rest of the league with the Lewis hire and said so a month later at the scouting combine.
"Mike did a good job. He did it very well, very professionally," Rooney told Bengals.com "I talked to him several times and I commend him. He's the guy that did it."
Of course there were disagreements. But, in the end, a friend in the league is a friend in the league.
"There was one time he really castigated me on the floor of the meeting,' Brown said. "Fine. There was a bathroom break. I was walking down the hallway. He was walking down the hallway. It didn't matter. We knew that's how it worked."
Brown could only offer a wan smile. He can't even remember the topic that unleashed the harsh words.
"But it was pretty rough and yet it didn't affect the way I felt towards him and I like to think it didn't really affect the way he felt towards me," Brown said.
"That shows you how it is in the league."
Throwback gallery of the Bengals Draft Class of 2002 & 2003