Pro Football’s First Lady
Well, the NFL’s 2016 Annual League Meeting is now, as they say, “in the books.” And like everything else the league does, it was first class and comprehensive.
Held at the beautiful and sprawling Boca Raton Resort & Club, the daily meetings began early and ended late. Just being there and watching football history unfold right in front of my eyes, was rewarding enough. But for me, this year was extra special as I had the rare opportunity to spend some time with a very special person. On the second day of the four-day confab, I had the pleasure of sitting down with and interviewing the “First Lady of Professional Football,” Virginia McCaskey.
To talk football with any NFL club owner – past or present – is for me, always great. But this conversation was truly special. Think about it. Here I am at the NFL’s 96th Annual Meeting and I’m reminiscing with the daughter of George Halas, one of the league’s founding fathers and the founder of the Chicago Bears.
Although she prefers to go by her official title of “Corporate Secretary,” Virginia McCaskey is in reality the principal owner of the NFL’s most storied franchise.
To the now 93-year-old, growing up the daughter of George and Min Halas seemed fairly normal. “George Halas was not a household name when I was young,” she told me, “and the Chicago Bears didn’t mean that much, and pro football wasn’t all that important to people.” All true.
But even so, Virginia’s exposure to the pro game was as unique as any could have been and began at a very early age. In 1925, when she was just three years old, Virginia accompanied her parents on the first leg of the now famous “Red Grange Barnstorming Tour.” That 19-game, 67-day swing across the East and West Coasts of the United States, put pro football on the map. Although too young to remember the specifics of the trip, she related how she and her mother and younger brother George travelled with the team by train down the East Coast. The team played in front of large crowds and in cities that had never witnessed the professional game. But, as she explained, after completing the East Coast portion of the grueling schedule, her mother decided it was time for the young family to return to Chicago while the team continued on to the West Coast.
Another pivotal period in the Bears history, and an era she remembers fondly was the 1940s. Specifically the 1940 season when the Bears defeated the Washington Redskins 73-0 in the championship game. The lopsided affair still brings a big smile to Virginia’s face. But beyond the win, she also recognizes how important the game was in the development of the all-important T-formation that her father and Clark Shaughnessy perfected. She recalled how coaches from every level from across the country contacted her father to learn more about the revolutionary style of play.
Her favorite player…oh so many to consider…but after a short deliberation Hall of Fame tackle Link Lyman is who she chose. Partly because Lyman’s wife and Virginia’s mother were best friends and they had two daughters who became her “pals.”
But there are many others she remembers fondly including Paddy Driscoll, Bronko Nagurski, and the Mara, Rooney and Bidwill families. Charley Bidwill was a friend of her father’s even before he bought the then-Chicago Cardinals. Bidwill, she shared, lent her father money at one time to help keep his Bears team afloat.
Two former players, Brian Piccolo and Walter Payton, however, caused her to swallow hard as she remembered them both with the fondness of family members.
In a voice that dropped with solemn reflection, she told me that Piccolo’s death may have been the only time she ever questioned God’s will. But then she offered that looking back now she realizes all the good that has been accomplished in Brian’s name in cancer research.
Clearly, Virginia McCaskey has lived through and been a part of pro football’s good times as well as the lean years. She remembers how competing teams did things “for the good of the league.” Even if they were their toughest competitors on the field.
Still, the Bears’ leader made it clear to me that her team won’t be toasting marshmallows by a campfire with any division rivals anytime soon. When I suggested that a “certain love,” might exist between the Bears and their longtime rivals, she took a long pause, looking me directly in the eye and replying in a firm, corrective tone “okay, YOU call it love.” Then she smiled and chuckled. Her Dad would’ve been proud.
Throwback Thursday with Joe Horrigan - NFL Owners MeetingsPosted by Pro Football Hall of Fame on Thursday, March 24, 2016
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