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Sculptor shapes men who shaped football

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Go back 80 autumns, to 1923, to the North Side, and see what you see. You see a dead horse, floating slowly on its side down the Allegheny River, no particular place to go. Pollution isn't really a word yet, let alone an issue.

You see a loud and bloody street fight, maybe over somethin' and maybe over nothin'. Tsk, tsk. Ladies, ladies.

You see a comically long line of young men, 22 of them to be exact, positioning themselves for a photograph. They are standing along what is now, approximately, PNC Park's right field foul line. They are facing west, early in the day, so that their shadows will fall in the foreground of the photograph. In front of them, seated with his legs crossed and also facing the camera, you see Vince Rooney. He is 14.

Vince is posing with his three older brothers and the rest of their football team, the Hope Harveys. They call themselves the Hope Harveys because they dress in the Hope Fire House and their unofficial team doctor is named Harvey. This makes perfect sense. This was before, you know, marketing.

The photo, impossibly wide as it seems, also makes perfect sense, somehow, in 1923. They don't take photos like this anymore. They're impractical and imponderable, but not to everyone.

"Looking at the photograph, I always wondered what it would be like to have been there with those men," Ray Sokolowski was saying the other day at the Hot Metal Grille. "I could feel the personalities in it. I tried to use my own life experiences because I've always been an observer of gestures, posture and expression."

Ray is a Mt. Lebanon sculptor who married Vince Rooney's youngest daughter, the noted illustrator Kathy Rooney, meaning he's spent his married life in the long rhetorical shadow of Rooney family oral history.

"Ray always loved this picture," Kathy said. "My family is always telling stories about my dad and his brothers, and with this project it's almost like Ray was doing it as a way to know my dad."

The project, so impressively executed, stood in its finished glory just a few feet to our left. Sokolowski sculpted each of the 23 figures in the photograph with clay and had them cold cast in nickel resin. Each about 14 inches high, they're standing exactly as they did in that 80-year-old photograph. On display at this new East Carson Street restaurant, the sculpture of the Hope Harveys awaits a museum or private collector willing to part with $25,000 for the original, or $20,000 for one of only 30 to be made from the same molds.

"You think Canton would be interested?" asked Jamie Rooney, Kathy's older brother, showing up for lunch.

Art Rooney's already sculpted into the Football Hall of Fame, but Sokolowski's rendering immortalizes the one football element shared by four Rooney brothers. Art played and managed the team, Dan and Jim were star players, and Vince served as ball boy.

"Everyone thought Jim would be the tailback on Art's first NFL team," Jamie recalled. "But he was in a horrible auto accident in 1931. Left him crippled."

Family members who've seen the sculpture say Jim's features are the most readily evident.

"He's wearing a very expensive hat here," said Kathy. "He was a ladies' man."

Ray started the sculpture about a year ago, and its formal unveiling Oct. 9 came near two landmark anniversaries in the history of the Steelers. This Sunday, the Steelers will play the 1,000th game in their history. And this season marks the 70th anniversary of the franchise Art Rooney started on the ground floor of what would become the most successful league in the history of American sports.

"I did Art first," Ray said, pointing at the then-22-year-old "Chief." "I added some cigars for his pocket, and the newspaper. I had a really strong drive to do this. I can't remember having such a desire to do anything like I had for this. I'd heard so much of the history, the stories. It was like I wanted to feel like I was participating."

The result can be seen at the Hot Metal Grille at least through October. Private collectors can get more information at www.krooney.net. You can only imagine what the guys lining up for that photo 80 years ago would have to say about that.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.

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