There is what was, and there is what might have been. What should have been.
There is the stirring memory of what Gale Sayers did as a running back for the Bears, and there is the unshakeable belief that he would have done so much more if not for the shortcomings of the human knee.
Here one moment on the football field, and gone the next. The Kansas Comet indeed.
Sayers died Wednesday at 77 after dealing with dementia for years. He will be remembered most for a brilliant afternoon in which he tied an NFL record with six touchdowns in a game, and he will be remembered for injuries that robbed him of his speed and agility. You couldn’t talk about one thing without referencing the other.
There was always that wistfulness attached to Sayers, maybe not by him but by us. It says everything about how good he was that he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame despite having played just five full seasons. It says: You know exceptional when you see it. It says: Whatever ideas you might hold about the importance of longevity are waived when someone like Sayers comes along.
Walter Payton was Sweetness. Sayers was Greatness.
But we wanted to see more of that greatness. That’s all. We shook a fist at the sky when it came to Sayers.
If you were a kid in the Chicago area in the 1960s, you pretended you were Ernie Banks (if you were a Cubs fan), Bobby Hull or Gale Sayers. If you were shaving at age 11 and liked to step on bugs, you probably pretended you were Dick Butkus. All of it depended on the season. In your mind, you were sure you were changing directions on a dime as you ran, just like Sayers did, football tucked to your side, opponents looking befuddled as they tried to tackle smoke. You fools! In reality, you were moving at the approximate rate of a box turtle. But no matter. In that moment, you were the great Bears running back. Life was good.
Sayers: "I played as hard as I could."— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 23, 2020
Five years ago on the 50th anniversary of Gale Sayers 6-TD game, @JeffJoniak sat down with the legend himself to reflect on one of the most memorable performances in NFL history. A must watch as we remember #40. pic.twitter.com/EBpI7M8vkt
You learned hard lessons from Sayers’ career, lessons you didn’t ask to learn. That life can be unfair. That the people you thought were indestructible were human just like you. That things happen, sometimes in a blink of an eye.
But Sayers would go on to teach other lessons. That there were other things in life besides athletic success. That determination in one pursuit could be applied to other pursuits. After his career ended, he went back to the University of Kansas, where he had earned the nickname the Kansas Comet, to get bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
He and Bears teammate Brian Piccolo, who was white, taught us lessons about friendship, especially during a tumultuous time in our country’s history. They were believed to be the NFL’s first interracial roommates for road games. Piccolo was there for Sayers through his injuries, and Sayers was there for his friend when Piccolo was dying of cancer. America wasn’t used to seeing a black person and a white person care so much about each other.
Even though Sayers’ numbers were compressed in a modest amount of time, they were mindboggling. But if you’re looking for stats that describe his versatility, here are the only ones that matter: During his career, he had a 103-yard kickoff return, an 85-yard punt return, three 80-yard pass receptions and a 61-yard rushing touchdown — all for touchdowns. Oh, that season in which he had the 103-yard return? He had two 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns, as well. Whatever you think you know about multi-threat players is bogus if you don’t know about Sayers.
His running style was built on hesitation moves and sudden cuts that left would-be tacklers looking like over-served guests stepping off a party boat. It wasn’t that he was reluctant to run over opponents. It was that his instincts told him there was a better way. We were all better for it.
He was averaging 6.2 yards a carry in 1968 when he suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee. The injury would change his career forever.
I suppose a case could be made that Sayers became bigger than life precisely because his career was cut short — that by leaving us to yearn for more, his legend grew even more. But go back and watch his highlights. You’ll see what we saw. You’ll know what we knew. He was spectacular. Yes, it was a shame not to be able to see what he could have done with two healthy legs over 12 seasons.
But what we did have, man, was it wonderful. Perhaps not enough, but wonderful. Mythmakers? No need for them here.
- Legendary Chicago Bears football player and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, in 2006. Sam Riche/The Indianapolis Star
- This is a 1970 file photo showing Chicago Bears football player Gale Sayers. Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who made his mark as one of the NFL’s best all-purpose running backs and was later celebrated for his enduring friendship with Chicago Bears teammate Brian Piccolo, has died. He was 77. Nicknamed “The Kansas Comet” and considered among the best open-field runners the game has ever seen, Sayers died Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. AP Photos
- In this Sept. 1968, file photo, Chicago Bears’ halfback Gale Sayers runs with the ball. He played for the Bears from 1965-71 after setting records at the University of Kansas. AP Photos
- In this July 30, 1977, file photo, former Chicago Bears star Gale Sayers poses after his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who made his mark as one of the NFL’s best all-purpose running backs and was later celebrated for his enduring friendship with a Chicago Bears teammate with cancer, has died. He was 77. AP Photos
- From left are 1970 file photos showing Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers. Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who made his mark as one of the NFL’s best all-purpose running backs and was later celebrated for his enduring friendship with Chicago Bears teammate Brian Piccolo, has died. He was 77. Nicknamed “The Kansas Comet” and considered among the best open-field runners the game has ever seen, Sayers died Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. AP Photos
- Gale sayers (40) runs against the Packers’ Ron Kostelnik in 1967. Sun-Times file
- Gale Sayers is accosted by the Steelers in 1967. Sun-Times file
- Bears running back Gale Sayers (40) runs for a 28-yard gain against the Los Angeles Rams, in Chicago. AP Photos
- Sayers is greeted by fans near the Wrigley Field ivy after an 43-yard run on Nov. 27, 1967. Sun-Times file
- Chicago Bears Convention- Chicago Hilton and Towers in 1998. Scott Stewart/Sun-Times file
- Gale Sayers throws the ceremonial first pitch in 2009. John J. Kim/Sun-Times file
- Gale Sayers throws out a ceremonial first pitch before a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and Atlanta Braves, in Chicago in 2014. AP Photo/Andrew A. Nelles
- Gale Sayers gallops across midfield en route to a 70-yard gain in Armed Forces Benefit Game in Soldier Field. Sun-Times file
- Here’s Bears’ star runner Gale Sayers in action in 1967 attempting to get away from Mike Weger of the Lions. Sun-Times file
- Bears great running back, Gale Sayers, congratulates Lucullus Lee as winner of the Parade Magazine’s young Columbus Award in 1970. The 13 year old was selected form a group of 11 outstanding Sun Times newspaper carriers for his prompt delivery, good service and building up his paper route. Sun-Times file
- Hall of Fame Chicago Bears Dick Butkus (L) and Gale Sayers share a laugh on the sidelines before a game between the Bears and the Pittsburgh Steelers on September 20, 2009 at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. The Bears defeated the Steelers 17-14. Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
- Pro Football Hall of Fame member Gale Sayers is honored at halftime during the game between the Minnesota Vikings and the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field on October 31, 2016 in Chicago. Stacy Revere/Getty Images
- In this Aug. 2, 2014, file photo, Gale Sayers is introduced during Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies in Canton, Ohio. AP Photo/David Richard
- Omaha Central graduate Gale Sayers, left, a leading rusher for the Chicago Bears, is seen escaping Green Bay Packers defenders on Sept. 24, 1967. AP Photos
- Redskin linebacker Chris Hanburger (55) got a good grip on Gale Sayers’ jersey and then wrestled him to the ground after the Bears’ star runner picked up only yard. Sayers showing in the game, however, was much better than his other teammates. They suffered humiliating 38-28 defeat. September 16, 1968. Sun-Times file
- Gale sayers sweeps the Giants’ left end, as George Seals (67) clears away linebacker Tommy Crutcher Sayers is fourth in the National Football League te rushing, but stiil Looking lor his first touchdown in regular season play. Don Bierman/Sun-Times file
- Gale Sayers in his office at Sayers Computer Source in Mt. Prospect in 2000. Rich Hein/Sun-Times file