By Bryan Dietzler
By now we have all heard about the news regarding the disease that Gale Sayers is suffering from. It recently came out that he has been suffering from dementia over the last few years. For any Bears fan, or fan of football, that is horrible news. This comes after recent discoveries about football and it’s relation to ailments of the brain. Not to say that football was the cause of Sayer’s dementia but some are associating it with that.
This is not an occasion to talk about the bad aspects of Sayers and what he is suffering through. Instead, we should take a look back at the multitude of accomplishments he had over his long and storied career. What did he do in the NFL when he was with the Bears? What did he do following his retirement? Some may remember but all may not know.
In honor of one of the greatest Chicago Bears of all, let’s take a look at the football life of Gale Sayers, Hall of Famer and Chicago Bears great.
Sayers was born on May 30th, 1943 in Wichita, Kansas. He spent most of his young life growing up Omaha, Nebraska however. Sayers played track and football at Omaha Central High School and was a stellar athlete. In fact, he came from a family of athletes as his older brother was a track star and his younger brother played for the San Diego Chargers.
Several schools tried to recruit Sayers but he ended up settling on the University of Kansas. Sayers first choice was the University of Iowa but he decided not to go to Iowa after their head coach did not take the time to meet him while he was in Iowa City for a visit.
He ended up having a very solid college career rushing for 2675 yards rushing with 4020 combined yards. He was selected as an All-Big Eight player three times and was named to the College Football All-America team twice. Sayers earned numerous other awards while he was in college. That, coupled with his playmaking potential, made him one of the most sought after players by NFL and AFL teams.
In 1965, the NFL and the AFL had not yet merged so players were getting drafted by two football teams quite often. Sayers was no exception. On the NFL side, he was drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Bears. The AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs drafted him fifth overall. We all know where Sayers decided to play football as after talking with his wife, he decided to play with the Bears.
Sayers rookie season was the stuff of legends. He scored a record 22 touchdowns with six coming through the air, one on a punt return, one on a kick return and the rest of them, 14, rushing the football. His 2272 yards that season were a rookie record and he averaged 17.5 yards a catch to go along with 5.2 yards per rush.
His biggest game of the season came against the San Francisco 49ers as he had a total of six touchdowns in that one game. The game was played on a messy playing surface at Wrigley Field where the Bears used to play their games before to moving to Soldier Field.
For his efforts in 1965, Sayers was awarded the NFL Rookie of the Year award from three different media organizations. He was the hottest thing going in professional football at that time.
The 1966 season saw Sayers lead the NFL in rushing with 1231 yards averaging 5.4 yards per rush with eight touchdowns. He was also the Bear’s leading pass catcher with 34 catches for 447 yards and two scores. Sayers was used heavily to return kickoffs and had a 31.2 yard average along with two touchdowns doing that. He earned honors for his efforts in 1966 including being named an All-Pro as well as earning a trip to the Pro Bowl.
In 1967 Sayers had another solid season but his rushing yardage was less than it had been the two previous seasons. This was happening because he was sharing carries with another running back, Brian Piccolo. He rushed for 880 yards and caught fewer passes. His punt return duties were also reduced but he did return one of the three returns he had that year for a touchdown. Sayers was still electric as ever but was getting fewer touches. He did make his third straight Pro Bowl that year despite the reduced action. He even scored two touchdowns in the NFL’s all-star contest.
Sayers 1968 season ended early as he tore ligaments in his right knee. Back then, players didn’t have the resources to come back as quickly or even effectively (or at all) them but Sayers worked hard to come back from the injury. He worked with Piccolo, a big motivational help to him, to help get back to form and make his return to the Bears in 1969.
Despite the fact he suffered from the lingering effects of the previous year’s injury, he managed to lead the league in rushing with 1032 yards while averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He has the distinction of being the only player in the NFL to go over 1000 yards during the 1969 season. For his efforts, returning from surgery and playing so well, he was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Thanks to some knee damage he got during the preseason in 1970, Sayers struggled to stay on the field consistently and missed a couple of games. He came back but wasn’t the same. Following their week four game against the Minnesota Vikings that year, he had surgery and was out for the remainder of the 1970 season.
Another surgery followed and Sayers tried to get back on the field and play during the 1971 NFL season. He got his chance to return to the field in October of that year and seemed poise to continue on. But an ankle injury the next week took him out for the remainder of the season. He attempted a comeback the next pre-season (1972) but retired before the start of the season.
Sayers will be forever remembered as a player who could see the field well and get by tacklers as opposed to moving through them. He was fast and hard to catch. He could stop on a dime, change direction then pick up speed again outrunning defenders all the way down the field.
One of Sayer’s most famous phrases, (attributing this to the man, Sayers, himself) was “Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need”.
There is much to say about Sayer’s activities off the field as his on the on the field exploits. Anyone who is a Bears fan will recall Sayer’s relationship with Piccolo. Piccolo and Sayers worked together on the field and off of it. When it was discovered that Piccolo had cancer, Sayers was right there by his side until the end. Their relationship during this period is depicted in the movie Brian’s Song. It is a story that every Bears fan must read or watch.
He had also written a book called I Am Third, which is what Brian’s Song is based on. After reading the book, I discovered something very true to life that Sayers said. He said (attributed to Sayers) “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” Quite a stirring quote.
Sayers had a busy post-football career. He started off as a part of the athletic department at the University of Kansas (where he went to college) and then became the athletic director at the Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
After his brief stint in college athletics, Sayers got into business and found some success. He owned and operated a successful company called Sayers 40, Inc. This company consulted with well-known companies across the country on matters regarding technology. They had offices in several cities across the United States. He also donated and raised lot of money for charities and helped found the Gale Sayers Center which was located in an area around Chicago. The center gave children constructive activities to do after school.
Of course, Sayers set several records during his NFL career. The 22 touchdowns he scored as a rookie is still a record for an NFL player in his first season. He is also still the most “current” player to score six touchdowns in a game. Sayers holds the NFL record in kick return average with an average of 30.56 yards.
Some of his other records have since been broken or he is tied with others for that record. Sayers is tied with four other NFL players for the second most returned kicks for touchdowns with six. He held the record for rookie all-purpose yards for a while (2272) until Tim Brown broke that record with 2317 yards in 1988. His all-purpose yardage record in a single season, 2440 was broken in 1974 by Mack Herron by only four yards.
Some of the honors that Sayers earned following his career included being selected to the Nebraska Sports Hall of Fame in 1973. He was selected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 1977 and then earned the “ultimate” football honor by being selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame the same year. He was (and still is) the youngest person ever to be added to the Hall.
The Chicago Bears retired his and Dick Butkus’ jerseys (numbers 40 and 51 respectively). He was added to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team and the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 1960’s All Decade Team.
Despite the fact Sayers played just seven seasons in the league, he is heralded as one of the best to not only play running back but play in the NFL period. Had he been able to stay healthy and play in all 14 games a season (back then they had 14 game seasons), he would have broken a lot more records and could be hanging on to a few still today.
Sayers epitomizes what it means to be a Chicago Bear. His work ethic and “never give up” attitude helped carry him through some of the toughest times in his life. He came back from serious knee injuries when most players in his time would have just retired. Sayers wanted to play football and he had the heart and the determination to do it. Every time he stepped on the field, he did something great.
Gale Sayers, a one of the greatest football ever and one of the most beloved Chicago Bears of all time.