I was very saddened to read today about the passing of Chicago Bears Hall of Fame halfback Gale Sayers, at the age of 77. Because of a leg injury, he only played seven years, but oh those years. Man was he great. The cliche "poetry in motion" was invented for him, fluidly gliding through the line, stopping, changing directions and making cuts you didn't think were humanly possible. When he was a rookie, he tied the NFL record by scoring six touchdowns in one game. He led the league in touchdowns that rookie year, with 22. He was that special.
And as amazing a runner as we was, by all accounts I've read over the years, he was a better person. Many people may know of all this because of the most acclaimed TV movies of all time was made about him and his relationship with fellow halfback Brian Piccolo, the first black and white roommates in NFL history, though that was only just a small part of the film, notable as it was.
His time with the Bears was odd. In what has to have been the greatest draft in NFL history, the Chicago Bears had two first-round selections in 1965 -- and they picked Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus, not only another Hall of Famer but considered by many the greatest linebacker in the league, but if not, at least of the five best. The college award for best linebacker of the year is called the Butkus Award, that's how great he was. What made it all odd, though, was that the team was absolutely awful -- yet with Sayers on offense and Butkus on defense, even as a little kid I knew enough not to miss a game or a down whether the Bears had the ball or not. They were both too special to watch.
I remember another player on that team, too -- Brian Piccolo. If you've never seen the TV movie (the 1971 original with a young James Caan and a young Billy Dee Williams, since they tried remaking it a few years ago), it's highly-worth checking out, just a wonderful film, and it gives a good sense of who Sayers and Piccolo were. Here's just a hint of that.
But all that aside, I have a special affection to Gale Sayers for a particular reason.
Through the first 50 years of the Chicago Bears existence, they played in Wrigley Field, after the Cubs season was over. Though I'm a big Bears fan, have seen countless Bears games over the years on TV, and been to years and years of college games at the beloved Northwestern (where my dad had season tickets for 49 years) and UCLA, I've only been to one Chicago Bears game in person in my life. But that one game, which was played at Wrigley Field, was not just the only time I saw the Bears play live, but it was my first professional football game ever, -- and boy, it was a doozy. It was the game when Gale Sayers as a rookie scored six touchdowns to tie the National Football League record, which still stands. December 12, 1965.
The day was pouring rain and the field was muddy, but while most everyone else was sliding all over the place, Sayers was seemingly unfazed, running free through the San Francisco 49ers defense, or what positioned itself as a defense. The Bears won 61-20. What isn't generally remembered is that although Sayers scored six touchdown, the team actually took him out of the game after three quarters when he had five touchdowns. Perhaps it was because they were so far ahead, perhaps it was because of the muddy field they didn't want to risk injury. Probably both. In fact, they only put him in the fourth quarter, for just one single play. A punt return. And he ran it back for a touchdown! His sixth, which tied the record. Through the mud, with the opposing San Francisco 49ers slipping all over the place. (Also notable about that rainy day is that it was also the game where the 49ers kicker, Tommy Davis, who at that point had the longest streak of kick extra points...missed. Which is why, you'll note, that they ended up with just 20 points, not 21.
This is an affectionate video of Gale Sayers sitting down with a sports reporter and going through film of his six touchdowns. Sayers was always a modest man (the title of his "as told to" autobiography is I Am Third), though an honest one. And in this video you'll hear him repeatedly say, "They couldn't touch me. They couldn't touch me." That isn't bragging. As you watch this video, what you'll see is that...they couldn't touch him.
For what it's worth, our seats were in the upper deck, sort of in the area of the end zone to the right, though we were a little further away, to the left. Yes, it was up high, but we had a great view of the field and everything that took place that glorious, albeit dreary day.
I was going to end things there, on real life -- but I decided to go back to reel life, and the movie Brian's Song. In 1969, Gale Sayers were given the George S. Halas Courage Award (named, as it happens, for Sayers' coach). He won the award for coming back from his devastating knee injury -- a rehab he credited to being made possible by his roommate Brian Piccolo. But though Sayers got the Courage Award, what those in the room didn't really know was the serious condition his dear friend was in, and he gave a famously moving speech, which was memorialized in the film. But though it got edited a bit for the movie, this was basically what Sayers said in his acceptance --
And I decided to go back to the movie because I found an excerpt of the actual speech. And as you can see, it really was Sayers.
"...He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent --cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' twenty-four hours a day, every day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo's tomorrow... I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."
That's Gale Sayers. And that's only just a part of while he'll be missed. And remembered.