Photo: AP Images
On autumn weekdays, miles above some nondescript American town, flies an aeroplane filled with dozens of the world’s best-trained athletes, a handful of men who dedicate their lives to scrutinizing the game these athletes play, and one 88-year-old grandmother.She’s not out of place. Virginia Halas McCaskey has been surrounded by men talking football since she was born. She is the majority owner of the Chicago Bears, and the daughter of George Halas, the founder of the Chicago Bears and one of the pioneers of the American Football Association, the precursor to the NFL.
Halas entered football in 1920, months before the creation of the AFA, when he organised workers at Staley Starch Works in Decatur, Ill. into a recreational football team. By 1922 the team had outgrown the likes of a small-town business, and needed a larger venue. He leased Wrigley Field, home of the Cubs, and appropriately nicknamed the Staleys the Bears.
In 1925, Halas catapulted the Bears to national prominence when he signed Red Grange the day after his last college game. Grange was the most well-known collegiate football player at the time, having scored four touchdowns in the first quarter against the vaunted Michigan defence the year before. He joined the Bears just in time for their popular Thanksgiving Day game and became a Chicago institution. With the team now on solid footing, and Halas in his mid-30s, he stepped down in 1930 to focus on his ownership role.
By 1933 he returned to the sidelines, where he spent most of the next 34 years, before stepping down for a final time in 1967. He holds the NFL record for coaching victories with 324 and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1963. He passed away in 1983 and left the Bears for his one surviving child, Virginia.
Photo: AP Images
Since assuming her ownership duties, McCaskey has largely stayed out of the spotlight. She’s received quite a bit of flack in the Chicago press for her hands-off operation. That’s because McCaskey considers herself a custodian owner, hesitant to do anything that might sour her father’s sterling reputation. Even in NFL ownership meetings she rarely voices her opinion, and happily remains in the background. But she’s no stranger to the players. She flies with the team to every away game and visits with players afterwards. It was with those players that McCaskey experienced what she calls, the best moment of her life: standing on the field in 2007 to accept the George Halas Trophy (awarded to the NFC Champions) while fans serenaded her with the team anthem “Bear Down Chicago.”
And within football circles she’s well regarded. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones considers McCaskey the single biggest influence on his decision to purchase an NFL team back in 1989. Giants owner John Mara said she’s the person he “really looks forward to seeing at the meetings” both because of her character and her connection to the league’s past. Not every owner knows her well, but all respect her.
As Broncos owner Pat Bowlen simply put it: “She’s an icon.”
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