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SportsColumnistsBob Glauber

New film 'A Lifetime of Sundays' honors 'Fab Four' women of the NFL

Chicago Bears owner Virginia McCaskey.

Chicago Bears owner Virginia McCaskey. Credit: The McCaskey Family

The four women possess a treasure trove of memories that go back nearly as long as the very beginnings of professional football a century ago.

Virginia Halas McCaskey, Patricia Rooney, Martha Ford and Norma Hunt lived the sport, albeit mostly out of the spotlight enjoyed by the men whose names and legacies are at the heart of America’s most popular league. The women experienced firsthand the growth of the NFL from a unique vantage point, gaining valuable insight into how football seeped into the very fabric of American culture and shaped generations of sports fans.

Jane Skinner Goodell had heard many of their stories and shared in those memories, having been around them so often during her own involvement with the NFL, first as a fan and later as the wife of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. A lifelong football fan who went to Bears games with her father and two brothers starting in 1972, Jane Goodell wanted others to hear about what the NFL was like in its infancy, and why these women played such important roles in the sport’s development.

“I’ve heard them tell the most incredible stories about their lives and their teams and, in Virginia [McCaskey’s] case, the birth of the NFL,” said Goodell, a former television news anchor who most recently worked for Fox News. “They’ve only told those stories privately, and I had presumed someone was preserving that.”

Not so.

Despite their decades of involvement in the NFL and the fact that they now own their teams (McCaskey with the Bears, Rooney with the Steelers, Ford with the Lions and Hunt with the Chiefs), the stories of these women remained largely untold, except by those who heard them directly. But as the 100-year anniversary of the NFL approached, Goodell wanted to make sure the remembrances of a group she affectionately refers to as “The Fab Four” were available for all to know.

And thus was born the motivation for getting the women from these iconic NFL families to share their accounts of their football lives. “A Lifetime of Sundays,” a 90-minute NFL Films production profiling the four women and their lives in football, will air on ESPN on Sunday at 1 p.m. and then again on ABC next Sunday at 3:30 p.m. It also will be available through ESPN’s Video on Demand until Sept. 15.

Goodell was sure she had a worthwhile idea and was eager to have the women open up about their lives. McCaskey, Rooney, Ford and Hunt felt differently.

“The hardest part was getting them to do it,” Goodell said. “They come from the generation of ‘we.’ We live in a generation of ‘me.’ It’s about talking about yourself. I describe them as modest. One of them said, ‘I wouldn’t want to talk about this publicly. That would be braggy.’ So it was a big challenge getting them to agree to do it. It took months, and it was a real leap for them. I think they needed to understand there was an audience that would be hungry for their stories.”

Goodell found that audience at an NFL owners' meeting in Florida in 2018 when she gathered “The Fab Four” for a roundtable discussion.

“There were 500 people, men, women, older people, young people,” Goodell said. “We went for an hour and 40 minutes. They were the breakout stars of the annual meeting. Afterward, people came up to them and said they inspired them. As we were exiting the stage, Virginia McCaskey came up to me and said, ‘I’m sorry we made you work so hard.’ She now understood that people would like to hear from them.”

It is a meaningful film in which the stories of all four women are told and interspersed with footage from some of the most iconic moments in NFL history: “The Immaculate Reception” in the 1972 playoffs, when Franco Harris caught Terry Bradshaw’s desperation throw against the Raiders. Chiefs coach Hank Stram’s unforgettable “65 toss power trap” commentary on a touchdown run in Super Bowl IV. Some of Walter Payton’s famous runs. And even a clip of the Lions upsetting the Patriots last season, when coach Matt Patricia beat his mentor, Bill Belichick.

But the stars of the show were the women themselves, and their behind-the-scenes interactions with players, coaches, family members and fans offered a revealing glimpse of what it’s like to have grown up with the sport and been front-and-center with the game.

McCaskey, 96, the daughter of the Bears’ original owner, George Halas, to whom so much is owed for the league’s eventual success, was born just four years after Halas represented the Bears, originally known as the Decatur Staleys, at the NFL’s organizational meeting in Canton, Ohio, the eventual location of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. McCaskey took eventual ownership of the team, and her family has run the franchise since Halas’ death in 1983.

She adored her team and its players, although she acknowledged during an emotional moment in the film that she couldn’t allow herself to grow close to them after the death of fullback Brian Piccolo. The popular movie, “Brian’s Song,” focused on the relationship between Piccolo and Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers. The real-life story was a transformational time in the McCaskey family. She said she had to keep her distance from the players because it was so painful to watch Piccolo succumb to cancer.

If you’re at all familiar with Piccolo’s story, you will feel her sadness. But you will also appreciate a strong-willed woman who has quietly devoted her life to making sure the franchise remains robust.

Ford, the daughter of tire magnate Harvey Firestone, married Henry Ford heir William Clay Ford, who eventually bought the Lions, and continues her daily involvement with the team at age 93. She also attends every owners' meeting and is an active participant in league affairs, as well as the team’s day-to-day operation. And, like every other Lions fan, she wants only one thing: a Super Bowl championship.

Rooney, the widow of former Steelers president Dan Rooney, still lives in the North Side home where she raised nine children. It is an easy walk to Heinz Field, where the Steelers play. The players adore her, and so do the fans. So does the city of Pittsburgh, which has benefited from her twin passions of various charitable organizations and helping to restore fountains around the city. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin is particularly close with Mrs. Rooney.

And the irrepressible Norma Hunt, widow of Chiefs founder and iconic sportsman Lamar Hunt, is as active today as she was when her husband, an original AFL owner, founded the Chiefs in 1960. She once accompanied her husband to five football games in a single weekend — “a fippleheader” of high school, college and pro games, as she called it. She also had an unwitting role in naming the Super Bowl, recalling the story of buying her children a popular toy — the “Super Ball” — in a Dallas toy store. She told her husband about the balls, which you could bounce high into the air, and Lamar eventually referenced the toy at an owners' meeting when he was discussing an AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The term “Super Bowl” popped into his head.

Norma has been to every one of them, making sure to take pictures with her family both inside and outside the stadiums as proof they were there.

“People aren’t aware of their influence, in part because the women themselves would never have bragged about their influence,” Goodell said. “But we watched four women who are well into the final stages of life recognize their own value once we convinced them that people were interested in their own stories. They were all legitimate shapers and trailblazers in NFL history.”

Four lives well lived.

Watching their story is worth your time.

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