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‘He’s a real Chicago hero’: Former Bears honor Gale Sayers

At 76, the Hall of Fame running back is suffering from dementia. But he still took center stage at the Bears 100 Celebration Weekend.

Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers is applauded by Richard Dent (right) during the Bears 100 Celebration Weekend opening ceremony Friday at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center.
Mark Black

Former Bears wide receiver Johnny Morris was looking forward to seeing Gale Sayers again.

“That’s one of the reasons I came — to see how Gale was doing,” Morris said Friday before the Bears 100 Celebration Weekend at the Donald E. Stephens Convention Center in Rosemont.

Sayers’ appearance was a bittersweet moment on a night of celebration. At 76, the player considered by many to be the greatest running back ever to play in the NFL is suffering from severe dementia. He entered the convention center in a wheelchair, weighing 130 pounds and wearing his Hall of Fame jacket and a baseball cap with his jersey number, 40, on the front.

As the Bears’ Hall of Famers in attendance were introduced in the opening ceremony, Sayers’ appearance on stage with Dick Butkus, Mike Ditka, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent and Mike Singletary was heartbreaking. Sayers showed no acknowledgement of the ovation he received from Bears fans. His eyes seemed to show some of the emotion of the moment before he bowed his head.

It was hard to tell if Sayers was crying. But there’s no doubt we were. This was tough.

But he was here, and that meant something to every former Bear in attendance — and especially those who played with him, those who remember him not only as a great player but a great person.

“Just a great, great guy,” Ditka said. “Gale was terrific. Humble. Never said a whole lot. But he was a super football player.”

“That’s a tough thing,” said Butkus, the Hall of Fame linebacker who came to the Bears with Sayers in 1965 after being drafted third overall, one spot ahead of Sayers. “I call and check on him quite frequently. Sad deal. You’ve just got to be thankful for what you’ve got. I’ve got my problems with neuropathy and my balance. But I’ve got no pain, and I still know who I am. I’m happy about that.”

As tough as it was to see Sayers a shell of his former self, this was a night to celebrate his lasting legacy. Though other running backs were more prolific — Jim Brown before him and Walter Payton after him, among others — there rarely, if ever, has been a weapon as dangerous from anywhere on a football field as Sayers.

He scored an NFL-record 22 touchdowns as a rookie in 1965 — including a record-tying six in one game against the 49ers in the slop at Wrigley Field. Sayers scored 56 touchdowns in 64 games over his first five seasons in the NFL from 1965 to 1969 — 39 rushing, nine receiving, six on kickoff returns and two on punt returns.

“Give me 18 inches of daylight — that’s all I need,” Sayers famously said early in his career.

In his first four seasons (50 games), Sayers set eight NFL records, including career rushing average (5.3 yards), total offense in a season (2,440 yards in 1966), touchdowns in a season (22 in 1965) and touchdowns in a game (six in 1965). He tied Ollie Matson’s NFL career record of six kickoff return touchdowns in just 56 attempts in his first three seasons.

“I played with Gale,” said Morris, who still holds the Bears’ franchise record for career receiving yards. “I covered Payton [as a sportscaster/announcer], and I’ve covered a lot of guys over the years. If I wanted one player for a season, I’d take Walter Payton. But if I wanted a player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers — above every running back I’ve seen, whether it be Jimmy Brown or O.J. Simpson.

“For one play, there’s nobody that was quicker and could cut. He had a knack of being able to cut, be in the air and swing his leg over the other leg and come down going in a different direction. That’s the best way I could put it. If I wanted a player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers.”

Sayers’ famous six-touchdown game on Dec. 12, 1965, at muddy Wrigley Field remains his most memorable feat in the NFL. He scored on an 80-yard reception, rushes of 21, 7, 50 and 1 yards and an 85-yard punt return. It was Sayers at his best — a fleet, shifty, darting running back who was even better in the muck.

“He was unbelievable, I’m telling you,” Ditka said. “There’s [nobody] like him. I know he’s going through a really tough time now. But he was unbelievable. I was there. The field was muddy! It didn’t bother him. He looked like he was gliding. Everybody was slipping and sliding except him. It was the most unbelievable exhibition I’ve ever seen in the history of the game.”

Former Bears center Jay Hilgenberg, whose uncle Wally was a linebacker for the Vikings, remembered the first NFL game he attended was a Bears-Vikings matchup at Wrigley in 1969.

“After the game, my uncle came out of the locker room,” Hilgenberg said. “He had [all the] autographs of the Vikings. I was upset at my uncle that Gale Sayers’ autograph wasn’t on there. I guess I had a little bit of Bears in me all along.”

Like Morris, Hilgenberg was looking forward to seeing Sayers on Friday night.

“I think it’ll be special,” he said before the ceremony. “Hopefully it’s beneficial. He’s a real Chicago hero.”