Make no mistake. Jerry Vainisi is a Bears fan.
Vainisi, the president and chief executive officer of Forest Park National Bank and Trust, helped lead Chicago’s NFL team to its first Super Bowl in 1986 as the team’s general manager. But 21 years and a bitter separation from then team president Michael McCaskey has somewhat removed Vainisi from the euphoria shared by fans cheering for this year’s team. In fact, Vainisi will be a long ways from Super Bowl XLI in Miami this weekend, opting instead for the slopes out west.
“I’ll be skiing in Beaver Creek, Colo.,” Vainisi said of Super Bowl Sunday. “I’ll watch the game après ski.”
But make no mistake. Vainisi is a Bears fan.
His office at the Madison Street headquarters is busy-if not cluttered-with stacks of work papers and various office trinkets. Impossible to miss though is the silver gleam of the Lombardi Trophy that sits high on a shelf directly behind his desk. To his left is a modest trophy case with various awards and insignia commemorating his three years in the front office at Soldier Field. To the right of that is a painting of the dominant Bears team that won its first 12 games of the 1985-86 season en route to an 18-1 record and the NFL championship.
“I’ll always be a Bear,” Vainisi said.
Vainisi was hired as the team’s general manager in August of 1983 by Bears founder George Halas, fulfilling a lifelong dream of his to be a general manager in the NFL, he said. As a child, Vainisi was a ball boy for the Green Bay Packers where his older brother worked in the front office.
Until January 1987 when McCaskey announced a mutual decision was reached to let Vainisi go, the Chicago native helped his club secure a strong nucleus of about a dozen players that could have been the foundation of a dynasty. Today, Vainisi bluntly acknowledges that he was fired and said a weak front office let key players slip away.
In looking at the 2006 Bears, Vainisi said the key for this group will be to keep the young players together. There’s no comparing this squad with the ’85 team, he said, but head coach Lovie Smith and company deserve their kudos.
“It’s a very, very good football team,” Vainisi said. “They’re a lot younger than the ’85 team. I think the best part for this team is still ahead of it. They could make a good run, like we should have.”
Had quarterback Jim McMahon been healthy during the 1984 and 1986 seasons, Vainisi predicted the Bears would have won back-to-back-to-back championships. Regardless of whatever success comes to this year’s squad, Vainisi said a straight comparison between the 1985 team and the 2006 team isn’t really much of a comparison. In fact, since 1985 no team has dominated the league the way the Chicago Bears did, Vainisi said.
“They’ve got to get to 12-0 and then we’ll consider it,” Vainisi said.
But all that is behind him now and Sunday afternoons are considerably different for Vainisi than they once were. In 1995 he opened a law firm aimed at providing financial advice to pro football players, but wound up working mostly with NCAA programs. Since that venture has started to fizzle in the last few years, Vainisi said he’s able to pull himself away from the television on Sundays and prefers to play golf or go boating in Lake Geneva, Wis.
In 1999 he bought out the last of five partners who, in 1974, took ownership of Forest Park National Bank.
His connection to one of the greatest NFL teams ever assembled isn’t lost on his bank customers either, Vainisi said. The average account owner knows who he is and once in a while he gets cornered by misty-eyed fans who want to reminisce during social functions.
“You gotta be old to remember that though,” Vainisi joked.
He’s gotten at least a dozen phone calls from people looking to score Super Bowl tickets, but beyond an enduring friendship with former head coach Mike Ditka, Vainisi said he has no connections to the organization anymore.
At the press conference when Vainisi was let go, a tearful Ditka referred to him as “my best friend.”
“My life was the Bears and so was Mike’s,” Vainisi said. “Mike was really hurt.”
About a half dozen times each year Da GM and Da Coach still get together, sometimes at Ditka’s restaurant in Chicago. “It was a good time,” Vainisi said of his tenure with the Bears, but hopefully Super Bowl XX isn’t what he’s remembered for. He has five children, grandchildren and a business that played a key role in revamping Forest Park’s economy.
Make no mistake. Vainisi is proud of his Super Bowl trophy, just as he’s proud of the achievements that followed.
“I don’t want my life to be defined by something that happened 21 years ago,” Vainisi said.