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Football and Faith

June 3, 2021 13 min read
By Pat McCaskey Board Member and Vice President of Special Projects, Chicago Bears
Fr. Craig Vasek Athletics Chaplain, University of Mary
A football in the grass

Pat McCaskey, Vice President of Special Projects for the Chicago Bears football team, joined Father Craig Vasek, Athletics Chaplain of the University of Mary, to discuss his experiences of faith and family, growing up as the grandson of George Halas, founder of the Chicago Bears, and eventually working for the organization.


Father Craig Vasek (FVasek): I have to admit, I’m in a bit of a tough spot. I’m from Minnesota, so I’m supposed to be a Minnesota Vikings fan, and you’re a life-long Chicago Bears fan. Is there something we can bond over, like a shared hatred of the Green Bay Packers?

Pat McCaskey (PM): I want the bond of our friendship to be a shared love of Jesus rather than a shared hatred of another team! The Vikings are doing very well for an expansion team, and I’m a fan of Garrison Keillor.

FVasek: Well then we have no problem because I love Jesus more than I love the Vikings! And Garrison Keillor is a longtime great in the state of Minnesota.

Here at the University of Mary we’ve launched an institute for faith, virtue, and sport, and we’re trying to bring to bear classical virtue theory and the underpinnings of the faith on how our athletes understand sport. You’ve spoken and written so well of faith, virtue, and sport. Perhaps we could begin by talking about your personal history. You grew up in a family surrounded by faith and football: could you speak a bit about your life?

PM: My grandfather, George Halas, founded the Chicago Bears in 1920. He played on the team for 10 years and coached them for 40 years. He was the owner of the team for 62 years, until he died in 1983 at the age of 88. He left the team to his family, and we’ve been trying to extend his legacy ever since. His legacy has two parts: to win championships and to help other people. My grandfather was also my godfather, and he was a great friend. My brothers and I sat on an army blanket on the Bear’s bench while my grandfather coached. I remember him saying to a game official once, “No man is completely worthless, he can always serve as a bad example.”

I was a normal Catholic boy growing up: I wanted to play quarterback for the University of Notre Dame. I attended Notre Dame High School in Niles, Illinois, and around that time, after two-a-day training camp practices, Bill Wade would teach me how to play quarterback before he went in to shower. He emphasized footwork and follow-through. A few years before he died he asked me to speak at his funeral, which I was honored to do.

I failed the football physical due to a hernia before my junior year of high school, so I missed that season. I was able to play again the next year, and as a senior I played on a team that won every game by an average score of 38 to 9. I was the defensive signal caller and played linebacker, special teams, and quarterback. After that season, Joe Yonto, an assistant football coach at the University of Notre Dame, encouraged me to attend Cheshire Academy in Connecticut to get another year of playing experience to make up for the year I had lost as a junior. He told me if I did well at Cheshire, Notre Dame would seriously consider me for a scholarship. But right before I left for Cheshire, my eye doctor told me I couldn’t play any more contact sports – that’s why I try to be nice to everyone. So my childhood dream of playing quarterback for Notre Dame never came to fruition.

In the fall of 1971, instead of playing football at Notre Dame, I had an essay and a poem published in the literary magazine of Loyola University in Chicago. I was an English major there because I wanted to be a writer. I’ve been working for the Bears since 1974, but I’ve also had nine books published. I write essays and poems about sports and faith.

FVasek: In one of your more recent publications, Sportsmanship, which was published in 2020, you mention some of the people that were influential in your life. Could you speak to some of the work you’ve done in bringing attention to positive role models in sport?

PM: The cover photo of that book is a picture of George Halas and Vince Lombardi. They had great respect for one another, and they were great friends. Vince Lombardi’s grandson, John Lombardi, donated that photo for the cover of the book.

I’ve done work with an organization named Sports Faith International. We recognize people who are successful in sports while living exemplary lives. We’ve honored high school, college, and professional athletes, coaches, and teams each year on the vigil of Pentecost. Bishop Thomas Paprocki of Springfield is the celebrant of the Mass, and we hold the banquet at Mundelein Seminary, north of Chicago. George Halas and Vince Lombardi have been inducted into the Sports Faith Hall of Fame, and we hope to have Rich Gannon present at our banquet this May to induct him into the Sports Faith Hall of Fame, as well. I actually just spoke with him this morning about that.

FVasek: Rich Gannon was in the news lately – there was an article published about him and his faith. They entitled the article something like “Raiders Quarterback is Rich in Mercy.”

PM: Yes, that was published in the National Catholic Register, and Trent Beattie was the reporter. It’s an excellent article.

FVasek: It’s wonderful that you’re able to honor people who were successful on the field of competition and were champions of faith and virtue. Success on the field is obviously important in sport – victory is the objective of sport – but it is possible to do that well and not be a great person. People who are able to excel in both ways are the sorts of people we want to hold up as role models.

You’ve certainly been surrounded by people who model that well. I’ve read that your mother, Virginia Halas McCaskey, who is the Corporate Secretary and principal owner of the Bears, drives around in a Cadillac with a bumper sticker that says, “Pray the Rosary.”

PM: That’s very accurate!

FVasek: So tell us a little about how your family. The McCaskey-Halas family has owned and operated the Chicago Bears from the founding of the organization to the present. What has the faith and family aspect looked like and how has it impacted the organization?

PM: My goal is to keep the Chicago Bears in the family until the Second Coming. My grandfather was a man of faith and a man of prayer – my grandparents, parents, and my Uncle Mugs, were, as well. Faith is important to the family. The Chicago Bears have Mass and chapel service before every game, whether home or away. We tried to get the Pope to say Mass for us because we think our games are important, and we offered a $100 stipend and two tickets. He never took us up on the offer! Chuck Simpson said it was because “he probably doesn’t know who to bring!” We also have Bible studies on the players’ initiative, which are always voluntary and not mandatory. We have a chapel at Halas Hall, our headquarters complex in Lake Forest, Illinois. We want to win championships and we want to get to heaven.

FVasek: How has that tended to be received with coaches, players, and in people working in the front office? How has the faith been received in the day-to-day for these coaches and players in the NFL?

PM: People are open to faith. It’s not a requirement, and they know that. You don’t have to be Catholic to get drafted by the Chicago Bears. But if you want to be inducted into the Sports Faith Hall of Fame, it certainly helps to have been an altar boy!

FVasek: You’ve written down your 10 Commandments of Football. You’ve said your grandfather lived then, but you wrote them down. The seventh is: “Win championships with sportsmanship.” We focus on a lot of different virtues with our scholar-athletes, and while we don’t treat sportsmanship as a virtue per se, we see it as an aspect of the virtue of justice. Justice is the virtue by which we give every person their due. For athletes, that includes other players from both teams, referees, and fans. For fans that means showing respect for your team, the other team, the referees, and so on. There are a lot of relationships that unfold in sports for players and coaches. Sportsmanship grasps on that idea. How do you generally speak of sportsmanship in your work with a professional football team?

PM: Sportsmanship is the most important word to me. We say that we want to win the right way: not winning because we’re cutthroat but winning because we played our best and our best was better than the other team’s best. After games in the NFL, people from both teams meet at midfield to pray together. That includes players, coaches, and people who work for the teams. I appreciate that as a sign of faith and sportsmanship.

FVasek: That’s beautiful. Another one of the commandments you mention is: “All previous games are preparation for the next one.” That stuck out to me because it’s such a healthy mentality to teach our players alongside sportsmanship. Our head coach here at the University of Mary is known for saying, “next play.” No matter what happened on the previous play or in the previous game, you have to think about the next play. So we have to be willing to move on from a previous success or failure and let it go, but we also have to know how to learn from it. If we learn from our failures, we can bring them to bear on the future. So, while we can’t live in the past, we can recognize past failures as experiences to learn from.

PM: It’s important to remember the past with gratitude, to live in the present with enthusiasm, and to look to the future with confidence. After a bad play or defeat, we have to look ahead and use what happened as preparation for the next play and the next game. We can’t change what happened previously, but we can use it as a learning tool for whatever comes next.

FVasek: In addition to the commandments of football, you’ve written and spoken about the gifts of football. You list seven: stamina, courage, teamwork, self-denial, sportsmanship, selflessness, and respect for authority. The list we tend to use when speaking to our athletes is the cardinal virtues – justice, prudence, temperance, and fortitude – along with magnanimity and humility. If I’m going to strive for victory in sport I have to be magnanimous: I need to go for the heights, and I hope that my best is actually better than your best. Humility gives that a balance and an anchor: it helps me to recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around me and the talents I have were given to me. As I look at the seven gifts you list, I see how the virtues we discuss are captured by that list. I think they’re brilliant, and it’s worthwhile to lift them up. Could you speak to some of those virtues as you list them?

PM: That list comes from a speech my grandfather delivered about Vince Lombardi shortly after Vince died of cancer. I think these virtues can be learned through the game of football – in practices, in team meetings, by being associated with the game, and in playing the game itself.

Football is the ultimate team game. My parents have 11 children – that corresponds to the number of positions on a football team. Being a member of a large family and being associated with football teach you early on that you can’t always be the center of attention – in fact, you rarely can be. You need to learn cooperation off the field and competition on the field to be the best possible team.

FVasek: The idea that cooperation and competition are both central aspects of teamwork makes me think back to two capstone realities we try to highlight for our athletes: harmony and solidarity. Harmony is an interior psychological balance, where an individual is able to say, “I’m okay with myself, I understand who I am, I’m at peace.” And when people arrive at that point, it’s a good sign that our athletics programs are doing what we want them to do. Solidarity refers to the interconnectedness of people on the team working together. So the ideas of cooperation and competition, harmony and solidarity, really come together to give a strong image for what is meant by teamwork. It’s what makes a team a team.

PM: From a faith-based perspective, I’ll add simply that we’re made in God’s image, he gave us the talents we have, and Jesus died for our sins so that we can recover from our mistakes and refocus on the goal of heaven. That all ties into how we approach the game.

FVasek: I know that you do a lot of speaking and you’re engaged in outward charitable services with the Chicago Bears. What is the role of the platform sport provides regarding community engagement and charitable works?

PM: We have better community work after victory because we have more credibility. People listen to us more when we’re successful on the field. So when we focus on winning the right way, our community work is more successful.

FVasek: Before we bring the interview to a close, I was wondering if you could speak a bit to how your interest in writing has tied into your experience of faith and sport?

PM: I write a poem about the daily Gospel reading every day. Today’s poem is entitled, “Christ Said ‘No’ to the Pharisees’ Leaven.” Today’s reading was Mark 8:14-21:

“They had forgotten to bring bread, and they had only one loaf with them in the boat. He enjoined them, ‘Watch out, guard against the leaven of the Pharisees and the leaven of Herod.’ They concluded among themselves that it was because they had no bread. When he became aware of this he said to them, ‘Why do you conclude that it is because you have no bread? Do you not yet understand or comprehend? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes and not see, ears and not hear? And do you not remember, when I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many wicker baskets full of fragments you picked up?’ They answered him, ‘Twelve.’ ‘When I broke the seven loaves for the four thousand, how many full baskets of fragments did you pick up?’ They answered [him], ‘Seven.’ He said to them, ‘Do you still not understand?’”
Here it is:
 
The Pharisee and Herod did not see
The meaning of the signs of Jesus Christ.
If they had been playing baseball, they would
Have shaken off the signs. They would have lost.
 
Five loaves of bread for five thousand people
Led to twelve baskets of leftover bread.
Seven bread loaves for four thousand people
Led to seven baskets of leftovers.
 
Christ risen is like the sign of Jonah,
It was not meant to be a spectacle.
The Apostles went fishing for people.
They were dispensers of the grace of God.
 
Instead of eating much earthly leaven,
Perry Como sang "Pennies from Heaven."
FVasek: That’s wonderful! You write a poem every day? You’ve published a number of books – have you published any of your poetry?

PM: My latest book is called Poems About the Gospel. Just as there are 150 psalms, I included 150 poems in that collection. I’m writing more now as we go move through 2021. It’s a gift and desire that God gave me, so I pass it along to anyone who wants to read them.

FVasek: That’s excellent. Mr. McCaskey, thank you for sharing and for being with us today. I’m edified by your conviction and your adherence to the faith. You and your family have been powerful models of the faith in modern athletics. Thank you!

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