Most people knew Jerry Vainisi as the general manager of the Chicago Bears during their magical Super Bowl season of 1985, but to his family and friends, he was a tough but tender patriarch whose appetite for hard work was exceeded only by his generosity.
That was the picture that emerged at Vainisi’s funeral, held Friday at Old St. Patrick’s Church in downtown Chicago. Vainisi died last week at the age of 80, more than three decades removed from the achievement that made him a household name to Bears fans.
Franchise founder George Halas installed Vainisi in the job in 1983, and the front office he led drafted players key to the team’s Super Bowl XX success, including Wilber Marshall, William Perry and Kevin Butler. But his four-season stint at the top of the organization was just one stop in a long and varied career.
Vainisi grew up in a North Side apartment, the child of parents who ran a grocery store. Vainisi’s son Jerry described the setting: “His bedroom was a winterized, screened-in porch; the living room had a 5-foot statue of the Blessed Mother and a plastic-covered, semicircle couch.”
His older brother Jack was a scout and business manager for the Green Bay Packers, and when Vainisi was in high school, he worked as a ball boy for the team. He went on to Georgetown University, and after graduation became a radio sports broadcaster in Monmouth, Ill.
Vainisi put his sports dreams aside when his wife, Doris, became pregnant, and joined the accounting firm Arthur Andersen while attending law school at night. But in 1972, the Bears contacted him about becoming the team’s controller, and he worked in various business and legal roles before Halas made him GM.
His tenure was capped by the team’s championship triumph, which his daughter Mary Rogers vividly recalled.
“My dad included us in it all, from Platteville training camp to the ticker tape parade,” she said during the eulogy. “One of my fondest Super Bowl memories is looking out the window as we were landing at O’Hare in one of the team planes to see the ground crew, many of whom were dressed in navy blue and orange, jumping up and down and pumping their fists.
“With my dad at the helm, our family had front row seats to arguably the most thrilling time in Chicago sports history. All of a sudden, our dad and hero belonged to the city of Chicago.”
The good times ended just one season later, when the team let Vainisi go with two years left on his contract after the Bears lost their playoff opener in January 1987. Then-coach Mike Ditka told reporters he cried after learning Vainisi had been asked for his resignation.
Vainisi went on to spend three seasons as vice president of player personnel for the Detroit Lions before helping to build the league that became known as NFL Europe. He then became an agent, and finally the owner of Forest Park Bank in the near west suburb.
His friend the Rev. John Cusick, who led the service, said Vainisi was a “magnetizing” person with whom it was a delight to spend an afternoon in a golf cart.
“You would learn more about everything in life than you could ever learn (from) some professor at Northwestern,” he said. “It was always an amazing experience and you wouldn’t hardly miss it for the world, even if you don’t play golf.”
As she wrapped up her eulogy, Rogers fondly recalled the Lake Geneva house her parents had built as a gathering spot for their five kids and 14 grandchildren.
“It is there that we celebrate our greatest joys and also grieve our deepest sorrows,” she said. “And just like the home he and my mom raised us in, it gets messy at times. It’s fun and chaotic, filled with joy and also plenty of conflict. It is imperfect for sure, but in the end, it’s always love that prevails.”