clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

How Bears chairman George McCaskey walked 196 miles — from Decatur to Soldier Field

On July 15, he took the first step out of 196 miles from Tate & Lyle, the former A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company. George Halas ran the Staleys football team for the food starch company in 1920 before moving the team to Chicago the next year.

Bears chairman George McCaskey signs autographs following Thursday’s practice at Olivet Nazarene University in Bourbonnais
Brian O’Mahoney/For the Sun-Times

BOURBONNAIS — His tired feet aching, Bears chairman George McCaskey sent his mother a picture of Gate 0 at Soldier Field.

“I told her I’d completed the walk,” he said Friday. “Her response was, ‘I’ve just completed my rosary of Thanksgiving.’ ”

Virginia McCaskey didn’t like what her son had done. His wife wasn’t thrilled about it. And the Bears’ security director definitely wasn’t amused.

McCaskey had agreed to keep his quest quiet. He was instructed to keep it hidden even from some family members, for fear word would get out that the man who ran the Bears was walking alone for 11 consecutive days last month.

“We didn’t want somebody lying in wait,” he told the Sun-Times.

Turns out, not a single person recognized him.

To commemorate the Bears’ 100th season, McCaskey walked from Decatur, the original home of the team, to Soldier Field.

On July 15, he took the first step out of 196 miles from Tate & Lyle, the former A.E. Staley Manufacturing Company. George -Halas ran the Staleys football team for the food starch company in 1920 before moving the team to Chicago the next year.

Using a walking stick, he averaged about 20 miles per day and wore through four pairs of shoes. He grew a gray beard. A support driver dropped him off in the mornings and drove him to meals or his hotel. The next day, he returned to the stopping point.

“Mainly, it was to celebrate George Halas’ perseverance, his stick-to-it-iveness,” he said of his grandfather. “He just kept going.”

When brainstorming ideas for the 100th season, a Bears executive suggested the team hold a relay from Decatur to Chicago.

“When the relay didn’t happen, I thought, ‘I’ll just do it solo,’ ” McCaskey said.

He began training Jan. 1. A seven-mile walk produced blisters on both heels. McCaskey talked to a Bears trainer and was connected to a hiker through another employee. He switched to Altra shoes — with a square front and a less-pronounced heel pad — and special socks.

On weekdays, he walked about seven miles over two hours — it was all the time he could afford. He went longer on weekends but wasn’t sure he’d be able to handle the trek.

He figured he might take full-day breaks during the trip, but his son, Conor, told him it would be cheating. So he didn’t — though he was pulled away for a few hours for a Bears function and, later, a funeral.

Wearing long sleeves, sunblock and a bucket hat, McCaskey walked from Decatur to Champaign to Bourbonnais in six days. From the Bears’ training-camp home at Olivet Nazarene University, he walked up Cicero Avenue to Midway Airport, went east on 63rd Street and north onto the Lakefront Trail to Soldier Field.

Barb, his wife, sent George a message of inspiration each morning. He preferred quiet around dawn — and later in the day, the NPR podcast “Wait Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!” or “The Tattooist of Auschwitz” audiobook. His music taste skews toward divas, so he listened to Leona Lewis and Oleta Adams, plus James Taylor, Jim Croce and Carole King. He trained to Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles” — the tempo matched his stride — but over 10 days, the song never came up on his shuffle.

McCaskey tried to lose weight before the trip started, but ate whatever he wanted during it.

“Along the way, a Dunkin’ Donuts chocolate-covered cake donut tastes pretty good,” he said.

He tried to stick to soft surfaces — grass was better than asphalt, which was better than concrete. There were no dangerous moments, he said. Drivers gave him a wide berth, though they were surprised to see walkers at dawn.

Many offered him rides, not knowing who he was or what he was doing.

He said no.

Ask McCaskey what he learned about himself, and he’ll say there was no epiphany on the roads. Maybe that’s the point.

“A lot of times, it was just one foot in front of the other,” he said. “Just keep going.”