By Phil Rosenthal Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "A Lifetime of Sundays," makes its debut on ESPN at noon on Sunday. The documentary delves into the contributions of the NFL's four female owners, Bears owner Virginia McCaskey 96, the Lions' Martha Firestone Ford, 93; the Steelers' Patricia Rooney, 88; and the Chiefs' Norma Hunt, 81.
It was early 1926. Pro football was in its infancy. Red Grange was barnstorming with George Halas' Bears, traveling by train.
A large, presumably impassable crowd had gathered at a station to await the Galloping Ghost's arrival with the team, so a plot was hatched to get him safely off the train and to his waiting ride.
Grange donned a hat with the brim tipped low. Into his arms was placed a toddler, and he slipped through.
This likely was the first contribution to the Bears by Virginia McCaskey, Halas' daughter, then 3.
McCaskey, now 96, is one of the NFL's four female owners, a quartet that's the focus of NFL Films' "A Lifetime of Sundays," produced and quasi-hosted by Jane Skinner Goodell, the commissioner's wife.
"The Bears have been my life all these years," McCaskey says at a team meeting in the show. "I feel very blessed and grateful." "Sundays" makes its debut on ESPN at noon Sunday with a repeat set for ABC at 2:30 p.m. Sept. 1.
While the production is a bit stiff and doesn't get much below the surface, the real problem is that sadness courses through it. McCaskey ascended to the Bears throne with the loss of her father, a league co-founder, four years after the death of George Jr., who had been the presumptive heir.
The other three women -- the Lions' Martha Firestone Ford, 93; the Steelers' Patricia Rooney, 88; and the Chiefs' Norma Hunt, 81 -- are the widows of long-standing owners whose contributions are reverentially noted in lifting the league from its modest start.
The program dwells too much on what Halas, William Clay Ford Sr., Dan Rooney and Lamar Hunt Sr. (who also had a stake in the NBA Bulls) did and meant to the league, making it difficult to fully appreciate what these women have achieved on their own.
It's important that how tough, dedicated and shrewd these women have been doesn't get lost in the flood of nostalgia. They have achievements in their own right.
Still, it's so rare to get a glimpse of McCaskey's private life, we'll take anything we can get.
McCaskey says she wakes up daily at 5:30 a.m. so her driver can take her to 6:15 Mass.
"It's the best way to start my day," she says. "Get God involved in what I hope to be doing that day and ask for his help."
Former Bears cornerback Charles Tillman says McCaskey doesn't address the team often.
"But when she does, it's powerful," Tillman says. "She's got a voice, and when she's in the room, you're going to listen."
Explains McCaskey: "I don't want them to look on me as some little old lady who is just kind of hanging around. I want them to know how much I care about the Bears and them."
We're told McCaskey learned football from her mother, rather than her father, because that's who attended games with her as a child.
The family had seats in a box close to the Bears bench when her father was coach, but Halas rarely spent time on the bench, preferring to pace the sideline.
"All the opportunities I've had, all the privileges, all the miracles I've watched, I'm just very grateful for my life," McCaskey says. Some other quick thoughts:
-- Regina King is narrator, with bromides such as, "For these four women, football isn't just a game, it's a way of life."
Skinner Goodell might as well have handled the duties, however. The daughter of a former White House chief of staff who grew up in Lake Forest and became a Fox News anchor before her husband came to run the NFL, she has a considerable presence anyway. She hosts a panel discussion that is featured throughout and does an on-camera interview with Rooney in Pittsburgh.
-- Interesting that this is making its debut on ESPN. The channel wasn't so enthusiastic about McCaskey when she made a rare appearance speaking to fans at halftime of a Monday night game in September, presenting Brian Urlacher his Hall of Fame ring. Viewers instead were shown a musical performance from the group Cheat Codes. ESPN didn't even think to run a clip during the second half.
-- Halas is not the only ghost lingering in McCaskey's story. Her attachments to Brian Piccolo of "Brian's Song" fame and Walter Payton, running backs who died young, are recalled in loving, melancholy detail.
-- Fun fact: Rooney earned a master's degree and became a professor of communications at Robert Morris University.
-- McCaskey brings Lions owner Ford a box of chocolates whenever the teams meet on Thanksgiving.
-- Bill Belichick is effusive about Ford. Who knew he could be effusive? "She's very sharp," Belichick says. "She's so passionate about her team, about the city of Detroit, about the Lions fans, and I have a great deal of respect for that. ... She works very hard to try to put her team in the best possible position to win and be competitive."
-- Lest we think these men saints, an anecdote possibly meant to be endearing tells of Dan Rooney skipping the birth of his youngest daughter, dropping Patricia at the hospital, then circling back to the office so he could fire the Steelers coach.
-- Halas, meanwhile, was so suspicious of Virginia's beau, aspiring big-band singer Ed McCaskey, that he dispatched fellow owners to assess the would-be son-in-law during their courtship. Not surprisingly, Ed and Virginia eventually eloped. He died in 2003.
-- Although Hunt is only seven years younger than Rooney, she is the only one of the four women who expresses any concern about how others may perceive her age. "What I'm calling our little club -- this is the truth -- I always say, 'It's actually the fab three and Norma,' " she said. ___ Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.