One Friday morning in late November, Sister Jean Kenny sat in the attendance office at Von Steuben high school, phoning in her weekly segment on WLIT. “The Lions could pose a formidable challenge,” she said. “They have a lot of losses, but those were close losses. If the Bears win, it could be a tight game.” Her eyes flashed like emeralds beneath a pile of white curls, and a cross from her order, the Sisters of Providence, dangled from her neck over a Chicago Bears sweater. Chicago over Detroit, she predicted. Two days later the Bears beat the Lions in a nail-biter, 13-10.
The 52-year-old Catholic nun is celebrated for her ability to prognosticate NFL game winners. In 1994, as a panelist on WGN Radio’s prediction segment, she compiled a 10-6 record forecasting Bears games, beating both Danny Sheridan of USA Today and Hub Arkush, host of the show and publisher of Pro Football Weekly. This year she’s 13-3. In the last five years she’s been on CNN three times, correctly predicting the winner of the Super Bowl, and she’s been a guest on The Tonight Show and Late Night With Conan O’Brien. For years she broadcast on WMAQ and Oldies 104, but now her three-minute spots air Fridays on WLIT, usually between 6:30 and 8 AM. During the regular season she nailed 159 games out of 248, for an average of .641.
“If she were doing point spreads, that would be phenomenal,” says Arkush. “I’m under .500 for the point spreads. I’m .70, .80 for winners. Still, her average is above what winners in Las Vegas get, so she’s doing pretty good.”
Kenny’s real mission is teaching: at Von Steuben Metropolitan Science Center, the magnet high school in Albany Park, she assists special-needs students. Sanket Shah, a sophomore at Von Steuben and an ardent Bears fan, became aware of Kenny last fall, when she was tutoring students in one of his classes. “Later, we just started talking,” he says. “I saw her interest in football. I was always interested in football, but I didn’t have many people to talk to about it.” Occasionally during lunch he and Kenny would surf the Internet, looking up team standings and injury rates. Over Christmas break Shah E-mailed Kenny his own predictions for the last few games of the regular season. How did he do? “Not that good,” he said. “It’s pretty hard. You’ve really got to do a lot of research.”
Interviewers like Jay Leno joke about Kenny’s religious affiliation, suggesting that God may have something to do with her gift of prophecy, but she points out that it’s all in the homework. “I put a lot of time into it,” she says. “I study the handicaps, the injuries. If you want to be good at anything you have to work at it, put in the time. That’s what I tell the kids….Sometimes they ask me during the week what do I think, but I tell them I usually like to wait for the injury reports Thursdays in the Sun-Times and Tribune.”
Kenny reads the sports pages of both papers and studies Pro Football Weekly religiously (Arkush gives her a complimentary subscription because “she’s a nice lady”). Her copy is slightly dog-eared, with notes in the margins. She records her predictions and the actual game outcomes in a small, well-worn spiral notebook.
Kenny grew up in Garfield Park and attended all-girls Providence High School. She began to pay more attention to football in 1985, when Mike Ditka’s legendary Bears team won the Super Bowl. That year she won a football-poetry contest sponsored by WLS Radio with a poem called “Hurricane William”: “Refrigerator Perry is on the move, / He’s with the Bears as they continue and groove. / He’s a huge rookie with exciting new tricks, / helping the Bears go to New Orleans in ’86.” Bears promoters invited her to several fund-raisers and celebrations, and on one occasion Ditka even let her try on his Super Bowl ring.
If previous seasons are any indication, once the playoffs start the telephone at her convent will be ringing off the hook. A couple of years ago someone posted her number on the Internet and she began getting calls from Canada, Australia, and all over the U.S. Does she consider the fact that some people are making bets based on her predictions? “Adults can do what they choose to do–legally,” she said. “I’m just in it for a friendly challenge, for fun and recreation.”
Richard Gazda, principal at Von Steuben, laughs off the question. “Those who are playing in football pools–and of course we know that doesn’t go on–are always happy to consult with her,” he says. “She’s a joy to have on staff, and she’s very effective in the work that she does.”
Though Ditka is one of Kenny’s favorite people, her particular hero was Mother Teresa, whom she met once in Washington, D.C. And while she regularly attends Bears games with her brother Pat and watches the NFL on television with her friend Sister Marie Paul, she says she spends more time studying the Bible than she does poring over Pro Football Weekly: “I have my priorities straight.”
Based on the regular season, Kenny thinks the Saint Louis Rams will win the Super Bowl, a prediction she says she may revise after the NFC championship game. But as far as her own future is concerned, Kenny hopes that one day she’ll be ordained a Catholic priest. When she completed the master of divinity program at Loyola University in the mid-90s, three-quarters of her classmates were women. “I am committed in my heart and mind that this will happen,” she says. What are the odds? Kenny replies, “I would have never made this commitment if I thought this was a 50-50 chance.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.