Greatness punctuated by humility

Running back Gale Sayers played for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1971. Chicago Tribune historical photo/Tribune News Service

WATERTOWN — Given his stature in professional sports, one can be forgiven for presuming Gale Sayers played in the NFL for decades.

But he had a relatively short career. He served as a running back for the Chicago Bears from 1965 to 1971, a total of seven seasons. Several severe knee injuries forced him to retire at the age of 29.

It’s a testament to his enormous talent, then, that he accomplished so much in that time. In 1977 at the age of 34, he became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame — a distinction that still stands.

“Sayers was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965, and in his first season he amassed 2,272 combined rushing, receiving and kick-return yards as well as 22 touchdowns, a record for a rookie. That year in a game against the San Francisco 49ers, he tied an NFL record by scoring six touchdowns in a single game. Not surprisingly, he was named Rookie of the Year in 1965,” according to an entry on Britannica.com. “He twice led the league in rushing (1966, 1969), was named All-Pro five years in a row (1965–69) and has the best career kickoff-return average in the NFL (30.6 yards per return).”

Nicknamed the Kansas Comet, he was arguably the best pure runner the Bears ever had. His was incredibly fast and very elusive.

Sayers used to say, “Give me 18 inches of daylight; that’s all I need.” And more often than not, he was right.

But for all his dominance on the gridiron, he was a soft-spoken and gentle person off the field. It would be difficult imagining a player with his reputation today possessing the humility for which Sayers was known.

Sayers had his priorities, however, and he routinely put the needs of others before his own. A man deeply committed to his Christian faith, he explained his philosophy for living a meaningful life: “The Lord is first; my friends are second; and I am third.” The last part of this phrase became the title of Sayers’s first autobiography, which he wrote with Al Silverman.

Sayers’s loving spirit became the subject of one of the best sports-related films ever produced. He developed a close friendship with Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, who died 50 years ago at the age of 26. The made-for-TV movie “Brian’s Song,” broadcast on ABC in November 1971, focused on their relationship (read my review of “Brian’s Song” for a website called ZekeFilm by visiting wdt.me/ktnVQf).

Sayers and Piccolo became the first interracial teammates to room together while traveling for road games in NFL history. During the mid-1960s, this arrangement didn’t go over well with many football fans.

But the gamble taken by the Bears paid off. The bond between Sayers and Piccolo was disrupted only by a premature death to the scourge of cancer. The brotherhood they exemplified continues to inspire many people today.

Sayers continued to reflect his humility and humanity the rest of his life. It’s a shame that playing the game he loved took such a toll on him.

I’m not certain if Sayers’s brain will be studied for evidence of chronic traumatic encephalopathy, a condition found among individuals who have sustained repeated head injuries. But when he was diagnosed with dementia in 2013, health care authorities who cared for him said it likely resulted from his involvement with football.

Staff members of the CTE Center at Boston University have extensively researched this disease. They’ve examined the donated brains of 202 deceased football players and found CTE evident in 99 percent of them.

From what they’ve observed, they’re now convinced the condition damages athletes’ brains much younger than they previously suspected. This is a chilling prospect, one that raises legitimate questions over how long Americans will tolerate a sport that inflicts such destruction.

I was saddened to discover that Sayers wound up in the same situation as had many of his fellow football players. They were affected so early by cognitive dysfunction that can never be reversed.

But while his final years were impaired by dementia, Sayers carried on with the courage he had always exhibited. His brief NFL career and too-short life serve as tremendous example for us.

Gale Sayers was an extraordinary athlete and an even finer human being. We should all be so fortunate to leave such a legacy.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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(2) comments

Pitbull

First, I will say,"Rest in the arms of the Lord, Gale." I remember watching you in black and white. You were and are poetry in motion. Next it bears mention that zeitgeist's entire comment has to do with head injuries, with nothing about the man or the sport that, in part, made him. This has been a liberal mantra for a few years. Yes, I say "liberal" for its only liberals who seem to extol the virtues of eliminating football. Jerry Moore said something to the effect of, "How long will the nation tolerate a sport that..." or something like it. I wonder if either of you ever played the game. If you did, you certainly never developed a love for it. Perhaps we should eliminate every sport that has contact or danger. Maybe we could do everything on the computer. This is the liberal version of social gerrymandering in action. Football is yet another American institution that liberal, nose in the air, superior thinkers want to get rid of. For all its shortcomings, the sport has its advantages to our society (teamwork, strategy, cost/benefit, risk, grit, strength, skill vs brawn, etc.). Smart changes will happen as they happen. I'm just tired of the handwringing. Leave football alone, handringers and mourn Gale Sayer like he mourned Brian Piccolo.

zeitgeist

"Sustaining repeated [head] injuries was associated with a higher risk of suicide, particularly for adolescents and adults, in whom the risk was 41% and 61% higher, respectively. This finding corroborates the association between repeated injuries, particularly sports-related injuries, and dementia, psychiatric disorders, and suicide that has been reported in recent literature" (The Association Between Traumatic Brain Injury and Suicide: Are Kids at Risk? ncbi.nlm.nih.gov).

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