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This week in history: Bears score Gale Sayers

During the 1964 NFL Draft, the Chicago Bears had three first-round draft picks. Gale Sayers, born this week, became their first pick and signed with the team.

Chicago Bears player Gale Sayers and Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., at the Rainbow Commission for Fairness in Athletics at Operation Push on July, 29, 1993
Celebrated Chicago Bears player Gale Sayers, born May 30, 1943, joins Rev. Jesse Jackson, Sr., for the Rainbow Commission for Fairness in Athletics, a sports summit on racism and sexism, at Operation Push on July, 29, 1993. The Bears drafted Sayers, a fan favorite, in 1964.
Photo by Tom Cruze/Chicago Sun-Times.

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

In 1964, the Chicago Bears needed a big win in the NFL draft. A boring 3-7 season left many fans feeling dejected, yet impossibly hopeful about what the upcoming draft might bring because the Bears had three first-round picks and some excellent prospects to choose from.

Before the draft, the Chicago Daily News asked readers to vote for who they thought the Bears should pick first, and the paper published the results in the Nov. 19, 1964 edition. While Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus reigned as everyone’s top pick, the second favorite was none other than running back Gale Sayers.

Sayers, who was born May 30, 1943, may not have played on the famed 1985 Super Bowl-winning team, but he holds a special place in the hearts of Bears fans. He would become the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and his memoir recounting his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer in 1970, inspired the hit made-for-TV movie, “Brian’s Song.”

Fans in 1964 may have picked Butkus first, but they also recognized that what the Bears really needed was a breakaway runner more than a linebacker. Sayers suffered an injury earlier in the year, “but he’s well now. He’s a fine offensive player and he’ll go early, too,” defensive coach George Allen told Bears reporter Bob Smith.

When the paper published the team’s draft picks on Nov. 30, the Bears chose Sayers first — but so did the American Football League’s Kansas City Chiefs. Butkus may have been the fan favorite, but he ended up being the Bears’ third choice. On Dec. 2, Sayers made his decision.

“The setting is a rented hotel room,” Smith wrote. “Newsmen are gathered to record that Sayers has signed with the Bears instead of with Kansas City of the rival American Football League.”

Linda Sayers accompanied her husband alongside Bears coach George Halas and scout Buddy Young, who delivered Sayers to the Bears.

“I knew Gale from scouting him for the Colts,” Young said. “The NFL says, ‘Young, talk to Sayers ... keep him active ... keep him in a position where he has a choice.’ You’d be surprised how many kids never had a choice ... how many the other league pressures into signing before the draft.”

To Smith, Sayers appeared “friendly and courteous and maybe a hair ill-at-ease with all the fanfare.”

The newly signed player told him, “My wife and I decided Monday night that it would be the Bears. I’ve always had a great admiration for the team and for coach Halas. I wanted to be a running back and that’s where the Bears plan to use me.”

When asked what Sayers would make and if he signed a no-cut contract, Halas danced around the reply, giving Smith what he called a “newsless answer.”

“The Bears are reluctant to give no-cut contracts,” Halas said. “When we sign a player, we don’t like to announce the term of years involved or the amount.”

Smith speculated that Sayers probably cost the Bears about $20,000 a year “for a certain number of years” along with a signing bonus between $7,000 and $10,000.