Carrying on Catholic and Football Traditions in Chicago
Pat McCaskey notes the importance of the Church and recounts his grandfather George Halas’ adventures.
As the grandson of the legendary Chicago Bears coach and owner George “Papa Bear” Halas, Pat McCaskey has been thoroughly steeped in the history of professional football. Stories abound on everything from his grandfather writing the Bears’ press releases himself to waiting for tickets to sell so that he could buy athletic tape for players’ ankles.
Halas played professionally for 11 years, coached for 40 years and was the Bears’ owner for 62 years. The NFC Championship Trophy was named after him, following his death in 1983 at the age of 88. While the Halas name has become synonymous with excellence in football, George himself knew that excellence in life was more significant. He passed this philosophy along to his daughter, Virginia Halas McCaskey, who had 11 children with Ed McCaskey and is currently the principal owner of the Bears at age 95.
Pat McCaskey, Ed and Virginia’s fourth child, began working for the Bears in 1974 at age 25 as a public-relations assistant and now serves as a vice president and board member of the team. He has seen the connection between sports and faith since childhood — a connection that brought about Sports Faith International (SFI), an organization he co-founded in 2008. SFI attempts to demonstrate the value of faith in athletic pursuits and, conversely, the value of athletic pursuits for virtue formation.
Pat McCaskey spoke with the Register in advance of the Bears’ preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens Aug. 2 in the annual Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. The game takes place in the stadium next to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which has honored George Halas since 1963 as a charter member.
Do you expect the Bears turn things around this season after last year’s 5-11 record?
Going into this season, we have a new head coach, offensive coordinator and special-teams coordinator. I think those leadership changes will help us to do better this year. I like to say that we should win every game 28-12. That means we score a touchdown and an extra point in each of the four quarters, and our opponents score a field goal in each of the four quarters. That means we were kind enough to let them play a little, but that we came out on top.
Did you play football?
I played in grade school and high school, but the doctor told me I had to stop playing contact sports for the sake of my eyes. I was fortunate enough to have two successful corneal transplants, but there was no need to risk any further damage. My football career, unlike my grandfather’s, did not continue into college or the pros.
Your grandfather — George “Papa Bear” Halas — is one of the best-known men in the history of football. What are some of your best memories of him?
My grandfather played football, basketball and baseball for the University of Illinois. He played briefly for the New York Yankees and then transitioned back to football. He was a player, coach and executive for the Chicago Bears, and then in 1932 he became sole owner. He was a six-time NFL champion as head coach — not to mention two more just as an owner — and still has the second-most head-coaching wins in NFL history.
More importantly, he was a deeply Catholic man. He went to Mass on Sundays, even when games were played that day, and he also went to confession on Saturdays. He had a son, George Jr., and a daughter, Virginia, who is also my mother and the mother of my seven brothers and three sisters. I wrote a book about this and related things with Mike Sandrolini in 2009 called Bear With Me.
A lot of people don’t realize how humble the beginnings of the NFL were. The original meeting for planning the league took place in 1920 at Ralph Hay’s car showroom in Canton, Ohio. There weren’t enough chairs for the “founding fathers” of the league, so some of them sat on the running boards and fenders of the cars as things got started. Now the NFL Hall of Fame is in Canton — a grand memorial that is a far cry from the makeshift meeting that got things started.
For our family, being Catholic is not incidental; it affects how we run the Bears organization. We want to do things well, based on how my grandfather started them, and we want to continue to be a strong part of the city of Chicago.
How did Sports Faith International begin?
Ever since childhood, I’ve seen a lot of parallels between sports and faith. I liked to read books about champions of sport and champions of faith. Vision Books, in which adventures of saints were recounted, caught my interest. Those might have led to my wondering about which positions the apostles would play on a football team. St. Peter would be the quarterback, of course, and since Andrew was his brother, they would have played catch in the backyard, so Andrew would be a receiver, and so on.
Even without the apostles playing football, there are many ways faith can help someone become better in sports. Being a good Catholic is more important than winning, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win as a good Catholic. Ideally, the two go together. The best way to look at it, though, is to realize that your mindset is most important, no matter what kind of results you’re getting. Your perspective is the one thing you always have control over, and it influences how you behave.
We started SFI in 2008 to encourage athletes, coaches and teams to be successful at their sports, while also leading exemplary lives. We have a Hall of Fame and an EWTN-affiliated radio station based in Antioch, Illinois, WSFI 88.5 FM, that airs local segments on sports and faith. Some of the people we’ve recognized over the past 10 years are Bishop Thomas Paprocki, Father Burke Masters, Danny Abramowicz, Vince Lombardi and Wellington Mara.
Do you remember Maury Buford from the Super Bowl-winning team in 1986?
I do remember Maury. He was an excellent punter and a valuable part of the incredible team that finished 15-1 in 1985 and then blew through the playoffs in January 1986. That was during his first stint with us, and he came back to play again for the Bears after his time with the Giants. Maury was one of our Catholic players who would attend Mass, something that we have had for decades.
Do you have a favorite devotion, such as the Rosary or Divine Mercy Chaplet?
I don’t know if, technically, you can call this a devotion, but I like to go to Mass every day of the week. Every devotion flows from the Mass, so I like to go to the very Source whenever possible. Obviously, receiving Holy Communion is the height of personal participation, but there are so many other things about the Mass that are unbelievably powerful.
The Gloria is something we can take for granted, so it’s good to take a step back and ponder it anew, as if the angels in Luke 2 were reciting the beginning of it for the first time. The Gloria is a very powerful prayer, in which we praise, adore and give thanks to God and also ask for God’s mercy through the saving action of his only-Begotten Son. It leads us to what we’ll be doing forever: praising God, recognizing him as the Almighty who loves us.
The readings and the homily make Christ present among us through his written word. The Old Testament prepares us for the proclamation of the New Testament, and the homily continues that to make Christ present as teacher in a way that we can probably understand better in our own language. The Bible can be mysterious, so the priest makes those mysteries better known to us.
Being pro-life is important for you.
Yes, I’ve spoken at the March for Life Chicago five years in a row now, and it’s one way to publicly show my support for the value of all human life. Every child is created by God with dignity and purpose. Ultrasound images are making it clearer and clearer that we’re talking about, not just “tissue,” but little human beings that should be cared for with great respect.
Our culture has a lot of work to do when it comes to respecting all human life. Archbishop Charles Chaput, Bishop Robert Barron, Dr. Anthony Esolen, Dr. Scott Hahn and Joe Scheidler have all written books that address this topic in various ways. I highly respect all five of these men and have gotten to meet four of them. Bishop Barron used to be the rector of Mundelein Seminary, which is in my neck of the woods, so there were many opportunities to hear his words of wisdom and interact with him.
Do you find it especially easy to be pro-life as part of a family of 11 children?
My large family probably taught me things I wasn’t even aware of. Maybe the most basic thing was the idea that children are tremendous gifts to a family, rather than things to be feared. Raising children is what marriage is all about, really. Being part of the creation of new souls whose welfare and education you have the responsibility for is a beautiful thing. It should be celebrated, and our culture should be built around family life.
I love my family and hope that one day the next generation will carry on the Bears’ tradition, but even deeper than that, I hope they will continue Catholic traditions. My first name is emblematic of Irish traditions, which are often directly Catholic ones, because St. Patrick had such a strong influence on the Irish. Then Paul is my confirmation saint, and he is emblematic of the nature of the Church.
Because no one is born Catholic, we are all converts, although Paul had a particularly striking conversion. He wrote in 2 Thessalonians 2:15 about what the very mission of the Church is: passing along the traditions of Christ, whether verbally or in writing.
Register correspondent Trent Beattie writes from Seattle.
His book Fit for Heaven (Dynamic Catholic, 2015) contains a selection of Catholic sports
interviews, most of which have appeared in the Register.