Gale Sayers hears the greats on the other end of his phone, though he says little back.
Former Bears teammate Dick Butkus just called. So did former Packers running back Paul Hornung and another Hall of Famer, ex-Browns receiver Paul Warfield. Earl Campbell, the former Oilers running back, phones once a week.
When Chicago friends check in, they ask Sayers if he could play football today. It prompts a rare response — “Yeah, I sure can” — from the former Bears running back.
“They call and talk to him, because it is important,” Sayers’ wife, Ardie, said via phone from their Wakarusa, Indiana, home Monday. “Even sometimes remembering a person’s voice is important. He knows who they are.”
Sayers has dementia. Those closest to him have known for a while. He was diagnosed four years ago during his annual checkup at the Mayo Clinic, after Ardie told his doctor about increasingly unusual behavior. Once a great public speaker, Sayers struggled to write remarks or remember old stories. He grew frustrated when he tried to talk.
“I think it’d probably been going on before then,” Ardie said. “But I didn’t know.”
Tests showed the beginnings of dementia, which only has gotten worse since.
There are days, she said, when the 73-year-old can’t write his name. He can be painfully quiet. He struggles with memory and speech but is physically fit enough to play golf when it’s warm.
Sayers’ behavior became impossible to ignore. The family went public this week, first to the Kansas City Star, to quell any public speculation.
“People were wondering,” his wife of 33 years said. “People see him, and people began to wonder what was wrong with him. They could tell something was going on. People have started making their own assumptions about him.
“I said, ‘Well, it’s time. Maybe we should say something, and then they’ll hear from us and know the truth instead of someone else making up their own stories.’ ”
Former Bears coach Mike Ditka noticed about a year and a half ago.
“I knew what he was like [before],” said Ditka, a proponent of retired players’ medical care. “I knew that he was struggling with words and his memory a little bit.”
Sayers’ doctor said “football definitely had something to do with it,” Ardie said, but no one is certain to what extent.
“My guess is, my gut is, that it’s had some influence,” his brother Roger said from Omaha, Nebraska. “Whether or not I can say it’s the root cause, I don’t know.”
In 2013, a Chicago lawyer withdrew a lawsuit filed in Sayers’ name — at his request — against the NFL and helmet maker Riddell arguing the league was negligent in handling head trauma.
“Gale will tell you even before we knew this,” Ardie said. “He had seven knee surgeries and one replacement. He’d tell you I’d do it all over again. He loved it, and he’d say, injuries and all, he’d do it all over again.
“So what can you say?”
Sayers dominated the sport like few others. He was named first-team All-Pro five times in a brief seven-year career (1965-71).
“People in Chicago, we understand how great Walter Payton was, but Gale Sayers was way before his time,” said Ditka, a Bears teammate for two seasons. “He was the most electrifying runner, receiver, kick returner that I’ve ever seen in my life.
“I’m not just saying this because he has a problem. I’ve never seen a guy who could do more.”
There’s cruel irony in Sayers’ struggle to remember that.
“People live and work all their lives to retire and settle back and live part of their life on their memories and interactions with family and friends,” Roger said. “You lose some of that. There’s just no recognition of who’s who. And that’s tough.”
Roger suspects his brother “wants to say more than he’s capable of saying, but it’s hard for him to get some things out.” He’s grateful his brother is in good spirits and still full of vitality.
“You’re talking about one of the sweethearts in life,” Ditka said. “That disease, it doesn’t spare anybody.”
Ardie tries to keep him active. She’s planning for him to attend the Gale Sayers Foundation’s Kentucky Derby-themed party in Chicago.
“As quiet as he is,” she said, “he still enjoys taking pictures with people and having them talk to him about football.”
That’s what makes the phone calls so great.
“He’ll laugh,” Ardie said, “and it’ll put a smile on his face.”
Follow me on Twitter @patrickfinley.