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2026 NFL Draft

Rooney: Hosting NFL Draft Will Celebrate All of Pittsburgh’s Football Heritage

Steelers president Art Rooney II said the hosting of the 2026 NFL Draft will be celebration of the full Pittsburgh football heritage.

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Pittsburgh Steelers President Art Rooney II
Pittsburgh Steelers president Art Rooney II during a press conference to announce the hosting of the 2026 NFL Draft at Acrsiure Stadium on May 24, 2025. -- Alan Saunders / Steelers Now

PITTSBURGH — The 2026 NFL Draft is coming to Pittsburgh, and Steelers president Art Rooney II sees the event as an opportunity to celebrate not only the long and proud history of the six-time Super Bowl champions, but also that of the city of Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania at large.

“We think that Pittsburgh and Western Pennsylvania really are where the roots of pro football began, even before there was an NFL,” Rooney said on Thursday as the Steelers and local leaders unveiled the first parts of their plan to host the 2026 NFL Draft.

The first professional football player was William “Pudge” Heffelfinger, who was paid $500 to play in a game for the Allegheny Athletic Association against the Pittsburgh Athletic Club in 1892 at Recreation Park on Pittsburgh’s North Side, less than a half-mile up Allegheny Avenue from the Steelers’ current home.

In 1895, John Brallier of the Latrobe Athletic Association became the first player to openly play professionally. In 1896, the Allegheny Athletic Club fielded the first fully professional team.

“From there, obviously, football grew,” Rooney said. “All the mill towns up and down the rivers had their teams. They called them semi-pro teams. Some guys got paid. Some guys didn’t. But they were hard-scrabble teams. Really, it’s going to be great to celebrate the early days of pro football.”

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As football blossomed in the region, the Steelers, founded by Art Rooney Sr. in 1933, were a great recipient of the talented players from Western Pennsylvania. But, of course, not all of the region’s best went on to star in Black and Gold.

Rooney said the team plans for the 2026 NFL Draft to highlight the football contributions of all Western Pennsylvanians, including those that played their pro football elsewhere.

“Over time, football came to be an important sport that was played in our high schools and colleges around here, which resulted in many great players eventually moving into the NFL,” Rooney said. “We’re excited to be able to celebrate the history of the Mike Ditkas, the Tory Dorsetts, Dan Marino, Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana. There’s a long list and it’s going to be a lot of fun talking about those guys, as well”

Dan Marino, Courtesy Pitt Athletics.

Eight members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame were born inside the city limits, including Marino and Unitas. Ditka, Dorsett, Darrelle Revis and Joe Namath all hailed from the western suburbs, Bill George and Montana were from the south of the city, and George Blanda and Russ Grimm to the east. Only Notre Dame, USC and Michigan have more alumni in the Pro Football Hall of Fame than the University of Pittsburgh.

“In terms of players who impacted the game and revolutionized the way it’s played, this region, certainly, is second-to none,” Pitt associate athletic director E.J. Borghetti said. “The draft coming here is going to present us a great opportunity to showcase that and celebrate it, not just to a national audience, but let’s be honest, the NFL Draft reaches well beyond our country’s borders these days in terms of spectacle. We’re very excited about it, certainly at the University of Pittsburgh and kudos to the city and the Steelers leadership for bringing it here.”

Landing the event is a huge deal for the Steelers and for the city, but it will also provide the opportunity to showcase the region’s long history of football at all levels. And who knows, maybe another Western Pennsylvania product will be hearing his name called in the draft, this time in his hometown.

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