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Rooney Mara: The NFL Princess Who Can Kick Your Ass


By Phil Sweetland

Few who saw “The Social Network” realized that the actress whose character breaks the heart of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the film’s famous opening scene is part of an NFL royal family. She’s Rooney Mara, the great-granddaughter and proud Irish namesake of Art Rooney Sr. and Tim Mara, respectively the founders of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants.

Rooney, the daughter of Kathleen Rooney Mara and longtime Giants VP of Player Evaluation Chris Mara, next plays the title character in the high-profile thriller “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo,” which hits theaters Dec. 21. John Lee Hancock, who likewise has major credentials both in sports and movies as the writer/director of the Academy Award-winning “The Blind Side,” tells us from Hollywood: “The reason for Rooney’s success is that she’s talented. In her young career, she has taken on a variety of roles and disappeared into every one, which is rare. You never see Rooney, you see her character and that is a wonderful thing.”

The young actress also clearly inherited her family’s incredible work ethic, never flinching during the whopping 99 takes director David Fincher shot on the opening scene of “The Social Network.”

“You’re like, ‘Well, God, like after 10 times, how is it possible you’re gonna feel spontaneous?’” Mara told the studio, Columbia Pictures. “But even after Take 99, we were like, ‘Let’s do one more.’”

Columbia is billing “Dragon Tattoo” as “THE FEEL BAD MOVIE OF CHRISTMAS.” It’s a dark and moody version of the Stieg Larsson bestseller, and once again, Fincher is at the helm. Mara’s title character features a Goth, tattooed and pierced look and persona, a gigantic contrast to her Boston University student role in “The Social Network.”

Fincher auditioned many of Hollywood’s top actresses for the part, but told USA Today: “I wanted her from the beginning. Rooney may be a trust-fund baby from football royalty, but she’s level-headed and hard working.”

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One of Mara’s top boosters in the business is the casting director Laray Mayfield, who has worked with Fincher on both “Dragon Tattoo” and “The Social Network,” and on earlier hits including “Fight Club” and “Zodiac.” Mayfield is good friends with both Rooney and her older sister Kate Mara, who played the dark-haired waitress whose beloved boyfriend is killed with his Marshall University football teammates early in 2006’s “We Are Marshall.”

“They’re both wonderful, down-to-earth people. There’s no sense of entitlement. You’d never know where Rooney and Kate came from,” Mayfield says in a phone conversation. “The thing with Rooney for me is that is that she is tough, but she is also very feminine.”

New York Giants fans are likely more familiar with Kate, who has performed the national anthem at Giants Stadium more than half a dozen times since 2000. Kate thus became part of the fourth generation of Maras to contribute to the fabled team since her great-grandfather Tim Mara and Billy Gibson were awarded the New York Giants franchise by the nascent NFL in 1925 for $500.

“Tim Mara was a legal bookmaker. This was before parimutuel betting,” says Dave Anderson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times.

Art Rooney Sr., who founded the Steelers in 1933, named Rooney Mara’s maternal grandfather Tim Rooney in honor of her paternal great-grandfather Tim Mara, because of a timely wager.

“The reason he’s named Tim,” Art Rooney told Anderson in a 1981 Times story on the occasion of the marriage of Rooney Mara’s mother and father, “is that the time I had my big score at Empire City in Saratoga before parimutuel betting, one of the bookmakers I was betting with was Tim Mara.”

Anderson wrote that Art Rooney never revealed how much that wager had earned him, but that “estimates range as high as $380,000.” During the Depression, that was a small fortune.

Now, all those years and all those generations later, Rooney Mara is proudly carrying on the legacy of achievement of both sides of her family, in a very different arena from the NFL stadiums where the Rooneys and Maras first found fame. And after using the screen names Patricia Mara or Tricia Mara in her early roles — her birth name is Patricia Rooney Mara — since 2008 she’s gone by the professional name Rooney Mara, which embraces both family trees.

And after “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” hits theaters, this unassuming NFL princess might just be nominated for one honor that neither the Maras nor Rooneys have ever earned — an Academy Award.

This piece originally appeared in the December issue of Athlon Sports' monthly newspaper insert.