Her hands are always moving. Rose Ficarelli is 99 years old, and she still hasn't learned to rest them. She leans over her sewing machine to tell you a story about the '45 Chicago Bears, or the '61 team, or the '85 team; meanwhile she grabs another uniform from the pile of game-worn jerseys lying at her feet. She tells you about George Halas and Walter Payton and Mike Ditka, feeling the jerseys for holes as though she were reading Braille. Midsentence, she starts sewing. Her body moves to the machine's rhythm, shoulders swaying, feet tapping, hands fluttering like a pianist's. Sure, a few knuckles are swollen with arthritis, a few veins snake raggedly up her fingers—nothing a century of living isn't expected to produce. But to see those hands fly around a sewing machine is to witness a performance as nimble and mesmerizing as any on a playing field.
Ficarelli works at a tiny sewing table in the cramped offices of All American, a sports-equipment-reconditioning business situated just outside Chicago, and mends football jerseys. She has been at her sewing machine since 1938. All of Chicago's pro uniforms—those of the Bears, the Blackhawks, the Bulls, the Cubs, the White Sox—have at one time or another been touched by her hands. Virtually every high school, college, semipro and intramural team within a 50-mile radius of her table has benefited from those hands. Ficarelli, who will be 100 years old on Sept. 8, sits in front of her Singer three days a week and patches holes.
"My only complaint is that the company won't let me work five days a week anymore," she says. Her voice is deep and loud, the result of a lifetime spent shouting over the din of a sewing machine. "They think it'll be too much for me. But I'm just as fast as the day I started; I haven't slowed a bit. And everyone knows there's nothing in the world I'd rather do than sew. When I'm home, I just spend all my time sewing on my own machine."
Ficarelli looks much younger than her 99 years. Her hair, a luminous white, is thick and wavy and cut stylishly short. Her face is round, ruddy and nearly devoid of wrinkles. Her eyeglass frames are inlaid with gold swirls. She complains about the laziness of coworkers one fourth her age, threads a needle on the first stab and has a self-deprecating sense of humor ("nothing comes to mind these days—things are too busy leaving my mind") that keeps the office in high spirits.
Ficarelli has threaded her way through 55 championshipless Cub seasons. She's the Betsy Ross of the Bulls: When the team was founded, in 1966, she stitched together the original jerseys. She helped design one of the Blackhawks' early logos, worked on the Harlem Globetrotters' multicolored garments, sewed figure skating dresses for Sonja Henie in the '40s and whipped up outlandish outfits "with all them flashy things on 'em" for professional wrestlers. She can tell just by looking at a pile of football jerseys if a team is having a good season. "When a team is winning," she explains, "the uniforms are much more destroyed."
Rose, one of six sisters, was born in Chicago in 1893. She learned about both football and sewing from her father, a construction worker. He took her to Bear games soon after the team was founded, in 1920, and taught her how to sew using the family's pedal-driven machine. In 1938, when Ficarelli and her husband, Joseph, needed additional money to support their daughter and son (all three are deceased), she began sewing uniforms for Rayson Sports, in the shadow of Wrigley Field. She started at 60 cents an hour. "I was nearly penniless many times," she says, "and once I went 20 years without a raise."
Until 1985, when All American bought out Rayson Sports and moved the operation to the industrial suburb of Franklin Park, Ficarelli had the ultimate sports fan's job. During the week players from the Bears would drop by to request alterations or repairs. And on Sunday mornings they would unfold their newly mended game uniforms to find small notes pinned to the jerseys. "I'd tell the boys"—that's what Ficarelli calls all the players, boys—"how good they were last week. I'd tell them to keep it up; I'd wish them good luck." The notes were signed "Aunt Rosie."
Ficarelli's job made her privy to players' sartorial superstitions. For instance, Halas, founder of the Bears and head coach for 40 years, was fanatical about the fit of his game-day coaching suit. "He was so particular," she says, "that I often had to alter it three times a week. And more than once he kept me up past midnight before a big game designing a suit of his."
Even Payton was not his usual sweet self when a uniform was ripped beyond repair. "Oh, was Walter ever finicky about his clothes," says Ficarelli, beaming at the memory. "He'd come in all the time. He needed a perfect fit. And he was superstitious. He never liked to get a new uniform; he thought it was bad luck. It got to the point where every patch was holding on to two others. I remember one time his pants were ripped so bad I had to cut up another pair just to make patches to preserve his old ones. And when he did finally get a new pair, he'd make me take the stripes from his old pair and sew them onto the new one."
These days, however, things are different. The Bears are the only Chicago pro team All American does business with; the move to the suburbs forced other Chicago teams to use repair companies closer to their stadiums. Players rarely drop by; if they need to contact All American, they send a messenger. And because she doesn't know the current players, Ficarelli has stopped pinning notes to jerseys.
But still she sews. Three days a week, between 200 and 500 uniforms pass through her machine. She earns $7.05 an hour. And though she would like to earn more, she isn't about to leave All American. "Do you know any companies looking to hire 99-year-old ladies?" she asks, somewhat wistfully. And she isn't about to retire. "If I stop," she says, "I'll get old."
Ficarelli used to pin notes to the Bears' newly mended outfits wishing her boys good luck.
Michael Finkel, who lives in Bozeman, Mont., writes frequently for Sports Illustrated.