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Gale Sayers Didn’t Play For Long, But Long Enough To Become An NFL Legend

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Gale Sayers’ career as a Chicago Bears running back was just a quick moment. It says so much about what he did with that moment, just 68 games and never one in the postseason, that he is a legend anyway.

Sayers died Wednesday at age 77 after suffering five years with dementia.

This is one of those losses that a city feels. Sayers’ star was confined to the second half of the 1960s in an era of iconic figures in Chicago sports, with Sayers, Dick Butkus, Bobby Hull and Ernie Banks all stars at the same time.

To Chicago, Sayers was something new and fresh. Chicago has always been a tough town, city of big shoulders. The Bears were an old-fashioned smashmouth team that at times took more pride in taking pieces of its opponents with them than in winning.

And here came Sayers in the 1965 draft from Kansas, the best runner in the history of the NFL, changing directions sideways at fullspeed, stopping and starting. Thank God for youtube, because if you haven’t seen him, you should do what Chicago is doing today:

Watch highlights.

Consider his stats for the game against San Francisco on Dec. 10, 1965 at Wrigley Field: 

9 rushes for 113 yards and 4 touchdowns

2 receptions for 89 yards and a touchdown

5 punt returns for 134 yards and a touchdown

As legendary Chicago Bears tough guy Ed O’Bradovich, a teammate of Sayers, said Wednesday on WSCR 670-AM in Chicago, when Sayers got the ball “He . . . was . . . gone.’’

O’Bradovich began to break into tears when show host Dan Bernstein politely let him go rather than make him continue answering questions.

Sayers scored 56 touchdowns in the first 64 games of his career. He had 18 touchdowns of 50 or more yards in his first 45 games, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

But he blew out his knee when he got hit during a game in 1968. His teammates carried him off. And it’s a little unclear what his injury even was. Torn ligaments and cartilage.

When I was a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times, I was able to talk with Sayers a few times well after his retirement from football. At the time, he owned a successful computer company. Once, he told me that with modern medical technology, he thought he would have missed only several weeks.

Instead, he came back in 1969 and just wasn’t the same, yet he still managed to lead the league in rushing without any of his old flash. He played two games in 1970, had another knee surgery, then two more games in 1971 and another knee surgery. And then after fumbling twice in a preseason game before the 1972 season, he retired.

In 2010, Sports Illustrated’s Tom Layden wrote about what surgeons found when they replaced Sayers’ left knee decades after his football career:

No ACL, stretched and frayed posterior cruciate, an MCL that had been sewn or stapled. A half-inch wedge of his tibia had been sawed off to help redistribute weight away from his arthritis, almost no cartilage, and a joint filled with “dust and fragments from bones rubbing together for many years.’’

In Chicago, Sayers’ career is considered incredible and also tragic. Ironically, after Sayers’ six-touchdown game, Bears coach George Halas said that he didn’t put Sayers in for another touchdown because he wouldn’t have been able to forgive himself if Sayers had gotten hurt.

But look, Sayers averaged 5 yards per carry on his career, 11.7 yards per catch and 30.5 yards per kickoff return. Plus he returned punts. It wasn’t just a lack of modern medical technology.

It was the style of football back then, and coaches who thought it was OK to have Sayers returning kicks and punts, as well as everything else.

So, blame Halas? Well, yes. But also consider this: Sayers was the fourth player taken in the 1965 draft, just after Butkus. 

The first pick that year was running back Tucker Frederickson, who went to the Giants. His Pro Bowl career ended in 1971 after a knee injury. The second pick? Ken Willard, who went to San Francisco. He retired after the 1974 season following consecutive years with knee surgeries.

Sayers’ career was at least partly a product of his time. Just be glad that he had that time, no matter how short it was.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

4 Comments

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  1. Brian’s Song is still one of my favorite low budget biopic films. It captured race, culture, sports, masculinity and love all in one movie.

    I tear up thinking about it. Sayers May have been the greatest athlete to ever play for in the NFL … top 5 at least.

    He could play any position and be great 👍

  2. My dad is from Chicago-lifelong Cubs/Bears fan. The Bears were the first team I supported. I grew up with the legacy of Sayers, Butkus, Ditka, Payton, etc. I wasn’t born when Sayers played, but I read “I Am Third” later and was a fan. His dedication to God and family was inspiring. “Brian’s Song” is so heart wrenching.
    In 2005, I was serving in the Army National Guard and was deployed to Kosovo. Gale Sayers was a part of a USO tour, and I had the honor of escorting him around our base. He personally autographed a ball for my dad and was a class guy. I was so happy to give that ball to my dad.
    He texted me this morning to tell me of Sayers’ death. Truly a class act.

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