By Judy Battista | Published June 16, 2016
Illustration by Deanna Hjerling
George Halas, Art Rooney and Wellington Mara were three of the most influential figures in football history: Halas, a player, coach and owner of the Chicago Bears present at the 1920 creation of the league that would become the NFL, Rooney and Mara, respective owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants, both instrumental in the later decisions that would lead to the league's explosive growth.
All three were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. And all three were fathers, whose children -- and, in the cases of Halas and Rooney, grandchildren -- have succeeded them in taking over decision-making duties at the teams they ran themselves, carrying with them the lessons they learned from their legendary fathers.
In honor of Father's Day, the children of Halas, Rooney and Mara -- now the owners themselves -- recalled their fathers' wisdom, on everything from how to treat people to the importance of having a strong general manager.
Dan Rooney was managing the day-to-day operations of the Pittsburgh Steelers by 1969 -- he was the one who pushed for the hiring of coach Chuck Noll -- but he had worked for the team founded in 1933 by his father, the cigar-chewing "Chief," since he was a teenager. After starting as a ballboy while in high school, Dan Rooney signed players to contracts while still a college accounting major and sold tickets and ad space in game programs. As an owner, he played critical roles in labor negotiations and in encouraging diversity, has been a confidant of three commissioners and was himself elected to the Hall of Fame. He remains the chairman of the Steelers, but in 2003, he turned over the title of president, and much of the day-to-day decision-making, to his son -- and Art Rooney's grandson -- Art Rooney II.
Dan Rooney says that his favorite memory of his father came after the Steelers won Super Bowl IX, the first of the franchise's six titles.
"It was great to see how happy he was and how thrilled he was," Rooney said.
Rooney worked for the Steelers from the age of 14, growing up immersed in the franchise. His father encouraged Dan, his oldest son, to become more involved, and he sent him to meetings -- with other teams and with other general managers, to keep a rapport with the rest of the league -- as part of his preparation for taking over.
But it was his father, one of the most popular figures in NFL history, who set the tone for how the Steelers would operate.
"I learned that the most important thing is to treat everybody right," Rooney said. "You can't think you're some big shot and ride over little people."
Virginia McCaskey is the rare woman in the NFL's ownership ranks, having inherited the Chicago Bears after Halas' death in 1983. Halas was present at a meeting in September of 1920 at an automobile agency in Canton, Ohio, when the American Professional Football Association -- whose name was changed in 1922 to the National Football League -- was formed. He was a player, coach and an owner. McCaskey's son, George McCaskey, is now the chairman of the team -- and after he fired coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery at the end of an abysmal 5-11 season in 2014, he famously said that his mother was "pissed off" at the state of the Bears.
But the early years of the Bears were much more troubled, and Virginia McCaskey remembers how difficult it was for her father to keep ownership of the team during the Great Depression.
"He just put everything he had into surviving, and my mother was a wonderful partner in all of that," McCaskey said. "She made do with what we had and there were a lot of things that we weren't able to do. Even going to events like the Golden Gloves boxing matches that were put on by the Chicago Tribune, I realize now those were probably free tickets. They made a big deal out of the fact we were going to those boxing matches, but those were free tickets."
Halas did not talk often about things that were important to him, McCaskey said, and neither does she. But Halas, the child of immigrants who built a new life in the United States, stressed to his children how grateful they should be. And his Catholicism was deeply important in shaping Halas' sense of responsibility. After his death, McCaskey was going through her father's things and discovered how many people he helped -- with money, or a phone call or letter, or just a conversation.
"I try to do everything as he would do them," McCaskey said. "With integrity and realizing what a responsibility it is. I know there are a lot of perks and privileges these days; the other side of it is, along with that, we have to be very careful about our business and to take care of our family and a lot of other people along the way."
McCaskey's favorite memories of her father's time with the Bears revolve around the alumni parties -- and sometimes, championship parties -- that were held at the end of the season. McCaskey's mother enjoyed those parties in particular because it meant she was getting her husband back after a long season.
But it was in 1975, in a box at the old Soldier Field, where McCaskey got a glimpse of what owning a team was like. She sat in the box -- it was very basic, she remembers -- with her husband and father and brother, and with Jim Finks, the Bears' general manager at the time.
"We all took everything very seriously," McCaskey said. "The first time I sat up there with them, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I was -- the total involvement of my dad into every play and every yard. He just got so upset and worked up about every little thing that happened. He could see so many more things than I could see.
"And I went home that night and really worried about him. Here is this 80-year-old man who cared so much. And by end of the week before the next game, I realized that's a pretty darn good thing, to be 80 years old and to care that much about anything. Now, here I am at 93, and I'm still doing the same thing."
It was John Mara's grandfather, Tim, who founded the Giants in 1925, meaning that only the Bears among NFL franchises have been in the hands of one family longer. Tim's son (and John's father), Wellington, skipped law school to eventually take over as owner from his father -- and according to family legend, his college buddy, Vince Lombardi, slept on Wellington's sofa when he was between places to live. Wellington became a towering figure in the league, and he was instrumental in the NFL's critical decision that all teams should share television revenue equally, even though the Giants stood to make much more than others. When he was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1997, he and Tim became the first father and son to be so honored.
John Mara is Wellington's oldest son and worked as a labor lawyer before officially joining the team in 1991 as general counsel. Upon his father's death in 2005, he became the team president and is now one of the NFL's most powerful owners, sitting on the Management Council Executive Committee and on the Competition Committee.
"I think the most important thing I learned from him was to treat people the way you want to be treated, treat them with dignity and respect," John Mara said, of his father. "I was always amazed how he responded to every single letter he got. I've tried to emulate that. There are some I'm a little late in getting back to. But he felt if somebody cares enough to write a letter and address it and put it in a mailbox, the least you can do is respond."
The Giants still reflect many of Wellington's core beliefs. He felt strongly, for instance, that a team should have a general manager rather than giving final say to the head coach, because the GM had a longer-range view than a coach who was worried about winning next week's game. And Wellington was a proponent of hiring good people -- not just talented folks, but those who would not embarrass the team -- and then having the patience to let them do their jobs and not to make quick, irrational decisions.
"We always had a constant battle during the games, with me getting overly excited during the game," John Mara said. "I would react during the game and then once the game was over, the next day, I was back to being somewhat rational. He would be the other way, he would be fine during the game, then be dejected or elated for a week after the game.
"In the old stadium, I would sit right in front of him, within arm's length of him. I remember one game, I was getting so upset with one particular player, who will go nameless, I stood up, and said, 'What the hell is he doing out there?' I felt this rather firm grip on the side of my neck, pushing me back down in the seat. 'He's doing the best he can.' That's a pretty good lesson."
John Mara is the oldest of 11 children, and as the patriarch of the Mara family now, he finds there is almost always something in the family or the team that requires his attention. He thinks about his father every day, John said, with just about everything he does.
"I think, What do we do here? What would he want me to do?" Mara said. "The son of a father like that, you never want to disappoint him. You want to make sure you're doing something he'd be proud of."