George McCaskey

Bears leave Arizona fired up for season opener against Packers

Bears leave Arizona fired up for season opener against Packers

PHOENIX — Bears chairman George McCaskey teased a “major announcement” Tuesday at the NFL's annual meeting about the team’s uniform, which could come as early as next week. The Bears are celebrating their 100th season in 2019, so whatever that announcement is, it would seem likely to involve a nod to the team’s history. 

While we’ll have to wait to see what new threads the Bears will wear at some point in 2019, we do know this: The NFL granted the Bears the first game of the 2019 season, to be played at Soldier Field on Thursday, Sept. 5 against the Green Bay Packers. 

The NFL’s move was unconventional — usually, that Thursday night game goes to the defending Super Bowl champion. But with the NFL celebrating its centennial season concurrently with the Bears, the league had been in talks long before the New England Patriots won the Super Bowl (again) in February. 

Perhaps some in Boston will take this as another injustice thrust upon them by Roger Goodell and the NFL. Some other folks in that area of the country probably don’t care. But for the McCaskey family, it represents a special opportunity to celebrate how far their franchise, and the game of football, have come since George Halas founded the team 100 seasons ago. 

“We’re looking forward to it,” McCaskey said. “The place is going to be rocking. The 199th meeting. We’re two behind in the series. This would be a good season to even things up, I think.”

The Packers, indeed, lead the all-time series 97-95-6. Their first meeting was Nov. 27, 1921, with the Bears securing a 20-0 win. At one point in the early 90’s — before Brett Favre and Aaron Rodgers came along — the Bears had a 24-game lead in the all-time series. It has been, is, and always will be a point of pride for the McCaskey family and Bears fans to beat the Packers. 

And with a team that had a worst-to-first turnaround in 2018, led by a dynamic coach, budding quarterback and dominant defense, McCaskey wouldn’t be wrong to feel the tide starting to turn in the Bears’ favor for the first time since Mike Ditka roamed the sidelines at Soldier Field. 

“We know what the Bears mean to Bears fans and we're just very grateful for that,” McCaskey said. “I’ve said this before: We put our fans through four years of hell and they stuck with us and they were rewarded to some extent last year. A lot of people have told me I can't remember when I had so much fun watching the Bears. 

“7-1 record during the regular season at home. Matt (Nagy) challenged the fans to bring back the Soldier Field home field advantage and they responded. And you could see it building as the season progressed and those late season games against the Rams and the Vikings and the Packers, that place was rocking and that's what we want. We want a distinct home field advantage. We want to be respectful, of course, of the visiting team and visiting team fans, but we want it to be a difficult place for visiting teams to play.”

The first test of that last line will come in the NFL’s first game of 2019. With the league putting on an event in Grant Park, a national spotlight on NBC and an entire city’s attention turned to the lakefront, the Bears can expect a raucous atmosphere to greet their longtime rivals in early September. 

As Nagy talked through what would happen — season opener for the league, season opener for the Bears, at Soldier Field — he perked up a bit on Tuesday morning. 

“I mean, I got goosebumps just there saying that,” Nagy said. “It's going to be special. We've got to make sure our guys understand the significance of it, but not to make it too overblown to where they don't play fast. I think it's going to be great for the league. I'm excited it's at home. Obviously, playing in Green Bay and that tough loss we had last year (in Week 1). But I'm fired up about it.”

The NFL, of course, is not without its own issues as it enters its 100th season. Those won’t be papered over because of one Thursday in Chicago in September. 

But the sport remains the most popular one in the United States, with the NFL making strong in-roads in Mexico and England, too. And decades ago, when Halas had to creatively battle to get football in front of Americans, perhaps an event with massive interest like the Bears-Packers season opener would’ve been something he could’ve envisioned. 

“I don’t know that he could have envisioned the explosive growth of our game,” McCaskey said. “But I’m convinced that he knew that professional football was something that America would come to love. And there’s a little plaque in the lobby of Halas Hall, underneath this life-size piece of art of George Halas. And the plaque is written by Bill McGrane, a pretty good writer. There’s a line in there something to the effect of ‘By sheer force of his immense will George Halas demanded that American pay attention to professional football.’ I think that’s what has happened.”

And Now, A Story

We’ll end this with a story by McCaskey about why he doesn’t wear his Super Bowl XX ring anymore. 

McCaskey estimated this story happened in the early 1990’s, though the Bears first played the Cincinnati Bengals in a preseason game after winning the Super Bowl in 2000. The Bears played at Cincinnati in 1986 and 1995 during the regular season. 

Anyways, here’s the story:

“So I think it was a preseason game in Cincinnati and I had my ring on for the trip and we flew out of the airport, which is in Kentucky, on the charter. And at some point on the return flight I realized that i didn't have my ring with me and I was sick to my stomach. 

“And Bob Laskowski who at the time was our United Airlines rep and since came to work for the Bears and has been with us for many, many years tore the plane apart for me. I was very embarrassed and our doctors were looking under their seats and the overhead bins and the seat backs and the pockets — It couldn't be found anywhere. 

“Well, the fact of the matter was it wasn't on the plane and I thought it was hopefully lost. I don't remember how much time was passed, but I got a call from a firefighter with whatever the local fire department is that services that airport and he said, 'Hey I was on a vehicle on the jet-way and we're trained to look for debris on the tarmacs that could be sucked into a jet engine, and I've got your ring.

“… He returned the ring. He didn't want any money, didn't want any reward, he wound up coming to a Bears game or going to a Bears game, I don't remember what the details were. 

“But the ring was smashed, it had gotten run over by one of the airport vehicles. So, since then (laughs) I don't wear it all the time. And I've got my dad's ring from 1963 so they're both in a safe place.”

George McCaskey addresses National Anthem issue: ‘We think players should stand’

6-7georgemccaskey.jpg
USA Today Sports Images

George McCaskey addresses National Anthem issue: ‘We think players should stand’

Bears Chairman George McCaskey toed a fine line during a press conference Thursday while addressing the National Anthem controversy that likely won’t fade into the background any time soon. 

In McCaskey’s first public remarks on the subject since a carefully-worded press release last September, he said “we think players should stand” for the playing of the National Anthem prior to games, but also disputed that players who have chosen to and will choose to protest during the Anthem are not patriotic. 

“The first players to take a knee during the national anthem did so to bring attention to two issues — police misconduct and social inequality,” McCaskey said. “There are legitimate issues that deserve discussion and action. As a country, we can do better. It’s part of the founding fathers’ charge to us to form a more perfect union.  Commissioner Goodell said it very well, and it bears repeating — it was unfortunate that on-field protests created a false perception among many that thousands of NFL players were unpatriotic. This is not and was never the case. 

“The players’ actions were characterized by some and perceived by some as disrespectful to the flag, our country and our military, and what should be a unifying moment for our communities and our country has become in some instances another source of divisiveness.”

McCaskey said the Bears supported the NFL’s resolution on the Anthem enacted last month, which gives players and team personnel the option to remain in the locker room during the playing of the Anthem but gives teams the ability to fine those who openly protest on the field during it. McCaskey said he’s spoken with team president Ted Phillips and NFLPA union rep and outside linebacker Sam Acho (who’s been vocal on the subject) about potential discipline, but has not come to a formal decision on whether or not to fine players and team personnel for protesting during the Anthem. 

“There is no easy answer to the anthem issue,” McCaskey said. “No one is entirely right, nor entirely wrong. The policy change enacted a couple of weeks ago by NFL teams, including the Bears, isn’t perfect. But we think it will return the anthem to what it should be — a unifying force — while providing an option to those players and other team personnel who choose not to stand.”

With regards to President Donald Trump, who sparked another Anthem firestorm when he dis-invited the Philadelphia Eagles — who were planning on bringing a smaller contingent of players and personnel for various reasons — from a White House visit, McCaskey said the NFL’s policy was not enacted in response to anything President Trump has said or tweeted about the issue. 

“What the President was doing or not doing, or thinking or not thinking, or saying and not thinking didn't really impact our support of this,” McCaskey said. 

McCaskey talked about how his relationship with Acho — who’s been the most outspoken player on the Bears about social justice issues and the Anthem — has grown since the issue of protesting during the National Anthem hit a flashpoint last September, when President Trump said NFL teams with players who kneel during the Anthem should “get that son of a bitch off the field.” A day after, the Pittsburgh Steelers remained in the locker room at Soldier Field for the playing of the Anthem, while the Bears locked arms on the sidelines. 

“George and I spoke after the ruling was made,” Acho said on Tuesday. “I think it was a productive conversation. A lot of what we talked about was understanding … I mean, it’s tough as a player, like, why are you trying to infringe on my rights or my beliefs or my desire to make an impact? What I said last week was, no matter what people do we are going to try to make an impact one way or another.”

McCaskey said he wants to have more discussions with other players, and hopes other team owners around the league can start and/or continue dialogues with their players in an effort to re-build some of the trust that’s eroded between the two parties. 

“I think we continue the dialogue,” McCaskey said, “and listen to each other.” 

Zach Miller grateful for contract with Bears: 'I don’t think that would have happened throughout the league'

Zach Miller grateful for contract with Bears: 'I don’t think that would have happened throughout the league'

The last time Zach Miller had a press conference, he had to use crutches to gingerly make his way onto the platform on which the podium stands in the Halas Hall media room. On Tuesday, Miller walked normally to the podium, and quipped to the crowd of media assembled: “You guys can’t get rid of me, huh?”

Miller has been around Halas Hall during the Bears’ offseason program, but was guaranteed a place in the building to continue his rehab after signing a one-year contract worth the league’s veteran minimum on Monday (he was placed on the reserve PUP list on Tuesday in a procedural move). Getting to continue to use the team’s facilities and work with the team’s doctors and training staff is the “biggest part” of his contract, Miller said. 

And that contract was a gesture that didn’t go unnoticed, with former center Olin Kreutz tweeting “this is what winning looks like” and defensive end Akiem Hicks saying that he’s happy to be “a part of an organization that will take care of its players.”

But more than anything, Miller is grateful for George McCaskey, Ryan Pace and the organization for doing something they didn’t have to do. 

“That’s a testament to the entire organization and the McCaskey family,” Miller said. “I think you guys all know that the NFL is a big business. It’s a little different here. When you talk about business and football, this thing is really a family. I don’t think that would have happened throughout the league.”
 
It would seem unlikely Miller ever plays football again after he suffered a gruesome leg injury back in October that nearly led to amputation and required nine surgeries. Miller isn’t jogging yet, and only recently re-gained nerve function in his injured left leg. 

Miller said he’s okay not playing football again, but isn’t ready to rule that out yet. 

“My thing is to just get as strong as I can get to get to that point,” Miller said. “I don’t want to push it. I’m not going to take it slow, at all. I’m not going to baby it. I’m going to do what I can, when I can, and push those limits, but I’m not going to rush getting back into it. I don’t think that’s a good decision. I’ll just try to make it happen as fast as I can, but we’ll have to see when that is.”

Miller isn’t just using Halas Hall to rehab, though. He’s been a presence in the Bears’ tight end room ever since he got back here last December, and said he’s getting a little taste of what it could be like to coach once he officially ends his playing career.

At the least, though, being around his teammates is giving Miller a boost to his already positive attitude. And with this contract, he’ll continue to be a presence around Halas Hall going forward. 

“This could be very difficult, you know what I mean,” Miller said “I could be away and kind of removed from what I’ve been used to for a very long time – not having that brotherhood and not having people see me every day or check in on me. That stuff matters. Having that positivity adds to my happiness. It’s for sure helps me in my recovery.”