Queen of the North

Image by Zachary Rosenbaum – https://www.instagram.com/zacharyrosenbaumdesign/

 If you asked me to name 5 facts about the Queen of England, I would roll my eyes and spit fire 10 without even blinking. But asked to do the same about Virginia McCaskey, the stoic owner of the Chicago Bears, and a venerable Queen in her own right, and I’m embarrassed to admit that it would take a minute for me to come up with more than the obvious. Sure, every good Bears fan knows she’s the majority owner after taking the reins from her late father, the great George Halas, the Papa Bear who started it all. And of course, she’s well respected not just around Halas Hall, but also around the entire league. From a fan’s perspective, what more is there to know? And yet, as I dove into research to simply better my knowledge of general Bears history and lore, I kept getting pulled into the fascinating treasure trove that is Virginia McCaskey’s life. After discovering all I could, I’m left with a renewed sense of admiration for our fearless leader, and a deep desire to learn more.

     It’s not by mistake that not much can be found about Mrs. McCaskey, having turned down interviews regarding the team with anyone except official team outlets for years. And the ones she did accept were mostly about business: the upper management, the players, the decisions surrounding the future of the franchise, etc. The most intimate take I could find came from the NFL film “A Lifetime of Sundays” which offered a glimpse into the lives of the 4 female owners in the NFL. While promoting the documentary, Jane Skinner Goodell, who co-executive produced the film to help celebrate the NFL 100, said of the 4 women: “I describe them with a word you don’t hear a lot of these days, and that’s modest”. After searching google for the better part of a day and coming up with less than a couple handfuls of exclusive interviews she has agreed to over the years, I would say modest is an understatement.

     While watching “A Lifetime of Sundays”, I was instantly charmed as Virginia smiled while recalling the ploy to disguise Red Grange during his “Barnstorming Tour” when she was only three years old: “when Red Grange would get off the train, there were so many people waiting to see him, they decided I could be his camouflage, and if he wore a hat and carried me off the train, then people wouldn’t recognize him. That got him through the crowd”. But what came through more than fun anecdotes and fond memories was a peek into the kind of person she is. Her fearlessness was put on full display when regaling her decision to elope, thanks to a championship game loss by the Bears which rendered her father in a bad mood and unwilling to give his blessing to her marrying Ed McCaskey. After learning that she raised 11 children (I’ll type that again for those in the back: ELEVEN children, a literal football team!) my own sense of selflessness became more than pale in comparison (I’ll spare you the details of my embarrassing mini-breakdown on the day I needed to both work from home AND care for two young, sick children… the horror!). Her commitment to the legacy of her family and the franchise is entrenched in the way she speaks about her father and her unwavering focus during games, at which she is present for every single one. And what likely ties this all together is her deep, staunch, Catholic faith. When asked what her faith provides her on a daily basis she answered, without hesitation, “a reason for living”. Does it get more succinct or humble than that? 

     So now I sit here, feverishly trying to find more and more stories (with an ear worm of Billy Joel singing “so come oooout Virginia” echoing in my head) and always finding just enough to spark even more intrigue. Like the podcast she did with Peggy Kusinski from “The Sportscaster and her Son” while promoting the NFL 100 where she denies being a role model for women: “For the first 60 years of my life I was a homemaker, which is a foreign concept these days. I had no illusions about a career, I was happy in my role as wife and mother and daughter. This isn’t something that I worked for, it isn’t something that I’ve earned. So to look at me as a role model seems a little strange.” In a world where seemingly everyone assumes entitlement, this statement in and of itself is reason enough to call her a role model. But especially for women in the throes of trying to balance a career while simultaneously raise a young family, her example also provides a sense of hope. A woman who, after rearing a (very large) family, rises to the occasion at the age of 60 to take on what she knew would not be an easy and oft scruitinized role for the sake of her family’s legacy, is the kind of woman I can both relate to and aspire to be like.     

     In this era of over-sharing, daily (hourly?) social media posts, and TMI, I find myself frustrated at the lack of personal information. But mostly, I wish I could just sit down with her and ask a million questions, much like I wish I could sit down with my long-deceased grandmother and get to know her with my now-adult frame of reference. My mind flashes with questions of significance like: “What was it like being the only female owner in the 80s?”; “What’s your best piece of mothering advice?”; and “Is there anything you regret during your tenure as owner?”. But I also want to know the more-trivial pearls of wisdom and stories like: “How did you keep your house clean with 11 kids?”; “Have you ever shared a beer with Ditka?”; “Where did you find the fountain of youth and how can I get in on it?”.

     Say what you will about the McCaskey family and their decisions regarding the Bears over the years. At times the headlines have not been kind, reminding the public that a winning atmosphere starts at the top and often questioning the family’s thinking. But I don’t think there’s any room to refute that Virginia McCaskey has always conducted herself with poise and has shown no less than ultimate respect for the Chicago Bears franchise and especially the fans. And so, as we head into another Bears season, with a renewed sense of hope thanks to some magician-like rebuilding in the off-season, I think I’ll take a cue from our Queen and maintain a quiet confidence when envisioning the years to come.

     As for my prayers? They now include a Virginia McCaskey autobiography or an entire 30 for 30 a la “The Last Dance” devoted to one of the sole people to have witnessed (and later, at times, have a hand in) almost every major NFL milestone in history. Someone who is also, ahem, a woman. But considering her notoriously private past, I should probably take another cue from her and keep my prayers and priorities much more simple: Faith. Family. Football.

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