'A Lifetime of Sundays' applauds four women who helped build NFL

Martha Ford (from left), Virginia Halas McCaskey, Patricia Rooney and Norma Hunt provide unique insight to the NFL in "A Lifetime of Sundays." Erika Doss/Erika Doss Photography

Halas, Ford, Hunt, Rooney: some of the most famous names in football, carrying with them the weight of the NFL's history and the caché of titles and trophies. While the men who started the book on each family's football story have passed, the powerful women who have taken over the family businesses continue to add their own chapters.

A new film by Jane Skinner Goodell, a former television news reporter and the wife of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, tells the story of four NFL matriarchs, women owners now in their 80s and 90s: Virginia Halas McCaskey of the Chicago Bears, Norma Hunt of the Kansas City Chiefs, Martha Ford of the Detroit Lions and Patricia Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"A Lifetime of Sundays," narrated by actress Regina King and made in partnership with NFL Films, debuts on ESPN at 1 p.m. ET Sunday and on ABC at 3:30 p.m. ET Sept. 1.

At first the women, who are all of a generation that didn't have social media, were reluctant to talk about themselves, fearing that they would appear braggadocious. But after several months of hounding and convincing from Skinner Goodell, the four women agreed to sit for a panel at the NFL annual meetings in 2018.

"They were absolutely the breakout stars," Skinner Goodell told me on my podcast, "That's What She Said with Sarah Spain." "You could have heard a pin drop. We had 500 people in the room, all different ages, men, women. We talked for about an hour and 40 minutes on the panel, and after it happened, people came up to them and took selfies and said, 'You've inspired me.' Virginia McCaskey, at the time she was 95, she came over to me and said, 'I'm sorry we gave you a hard time. I get it now. We get it. We understand that there's an audience for this.'"

With that, Skinner Goodell earned permission to spend the 2018-19 football season following and filming the women, whom she calls "The Fab Four." Although she knew they were all passionate about football, the level of their fandom was still a bit surprising and even made it difficult to film at times because the women simply couldn't be bothered when football called.

"It was August. We were shooting in Pat Rooney's neighborhood in Pittsburgh," Skinner Goodell said. "Really, really hot, big-time heat wave. High 80s, very humid. We were supposed to do a walk-and-talk through Pittsburgh, and I said, 'Pat, listen, it's so nasty out. You're 86 years old. Let's do it tomorrow. The heat's supposed to break.' She just looked at me and smiled and said, 'Tomorrow's game day. We're not shooting a movie on game day!' And it was a preseason game too!"

McCaskey, now 96, believes she has watched more professional football games than anyone else alive. She remembers being along for the ride while her father, George Halas, led a barnstorming tour to promote the Bears and the new league he had co-founded. Star Bears player Red Grange used a 3-year-old McCaskey to get past throngs of fans.

"If he wore a hat and carried me off the train, people wouldn't recognize him," McCaskey says in the film. "That got him through the crowd."

McCaskey is happy to share her nearly 100 years of memories, just as long as you don't ask her to share them in the middle of a game. She travels to every Bears contest, home and away, and prefers to do any and all talking between quarters and at the half -- not during the action.

The women might not have loved the cameras in their suites while they tried to focus on the field, but the result is an incredible glimpse into lives that were built by and still revolve around football. These women, who had all grown accustomed to being ownership-adjacent, became powerful career women later in life. Their stories offer a compelling look at how sports have changed for women in just one lifetime. One of Ford's daughters notes in the film that her 93-year-old mother hadn't been allowed to participate in sports growing up but was allowed to take over ownership of an NFL team at 88 years old.

McCaskey raised 11 kids before becoming the primary owner of the Bears when the heir to the team, her brother, George Jr., aka "Mugs," died in 1979 and her father died in 1983. Rooney raised nine children before taking over the Steelers when her husband, Dan, died in 2017. Norma Hunt not only maintained ownership of the Kansas City Chiefs with her four children when her husband, Lamar, died in 2006 but also continued their tradition of going to the Super Bowl every year. The 81-year-old has been to all 53.

Hunt actually had a hand in naming the annual event. A popular toy in the 1960s that she bought their children, the Super Ball, was on Lamar Hunt's mind when he suggested that the annual championship game of the newly merged AFL and NFL be called the Super Bowl.

Skinner Goodell captures some of the great stories from these women's lives, including Rooney's view of the Steelers' Immaculate Reception and McCaskey's moving memories of Bears players lost too soon, Brian Piccolo and Walter Payton. In the film, all of it is accompanied by incredible footage and photos.

After an early screening of the film at the 2019 owners meetings, Pat Rooney approached Skinner Goodell. "She said, 'I've been going to NFL annual meetings for more than 50 years. This was the first time that people have come up to me and wanted to talk to me as my own person, not as the wife of somebody, not as the daughter-in-law, just to me.'"

"I didn't know what to say," Skinner Goodell said. "I was speechless."

In the film, Rooney and the rest of the "Fab Four" are revealed to be more than figureheads carrying on the family business. It captures why they should be celebrated for their leadership and contributions, treasured for the history they've been part of and recognized for their love of the game.

"We watched four women well into the later stages of their life recognize their own value," Skinner Goodell said. "They embraced the idea, finally, that they are legitimate trailblazers and shapers of NFL history."

For more on the film and its creator, Skinner Goodell, listen to a special bonus edition of "That's What She Said with Sarah Spain." Skinner Goodell tells stories from her work as a television reporter and shares how she met Roger and how their lives changed when he took the job as NFL commissioner. Plus, Skinner Goodell does the thing everybody does but nobody expects, The Spanish Inquisition!