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McCaskey lauds Decatur's role in Bears history


On Sunday, the Bears paid homage to team history by returning to Decatur.

To chairman George H. McCaskey, that also meant paying tribute to his own family history.

Speaking in front of a gym full of fans in Decatur, McCaskey answered a question about the decision to name the Bears mascot.

"We wanted people to ask, 'Why is his name Staley?'" said McCaskey. "We want to tell the story."

In 1919, A.E. Staley, a Decatur entrepreneur, founded a football team as an extension of his profitable corn starch business. He soon brought in a young player/coach, fresh out of the University of Illinois, named George Halas, McCaskey's grandfather.

The next year, the Decatur Staleys became one of the NFL's charter members.

Within a few years, Halas had taken over the team, moved it to his hometown, and renamed them the Bears as a nod to his first Chicago landlords, the Cubs.

"Without Mr. Staley, the Bears wouldn't be," said McCaskey. "We're very grateful for his entrepreneurial spirit and his vision and his support."

A century later, fans from all over Central Illinois flocked to the Decatur Civic Center to take part in Sunday's festivities, including taking pictures with life-size bobbleheads of Halas and star outside linebacker Khalil Mack.

When McCaskey was asked to compare Bears fans in Chicago and downstate, he said: "I think they're the same: passionate, educated, informed, and eager for positive results."

McCaskey was greeted like an old friend by the crowd Sunday. Fans gathered for a panel of McCaskey, writer Don Pierson and former Bears linebacker Lance Briggs.

McCaskey told the audience of the stories passed down from his mother. Virginia Halas McCaskey, the team's principal owner, was born a few years after the rebranding of the Decatur Staleys.

"He was only 25," McCaskey said, speaking of his grandfather. "He had this dream, this vision, this idea. He just needed somebody to give him a little support, a little backing. That's what Mr. Staley provided."

For that reason, the team has striven in recent years, from the introduction of Staley in 2003 to the centennial celebration this weekend, to pay tribute to those early roots.

"You can take these cornstarch employees that are actually football players," said McCaskey, imagining Staley speaking to Halas. "You can practice on company time, and you can practice on company grounds. Mr. Staley was ahead of his time."

To the downstate faithful, McCaskey hinted that the Bears would come to Decatur again in the future.

"Our relationship has been going on for 100 years, and we expect that to continue," he said.