On slick, muddy grass at Wrigley Field in 1965, Gale Sayers once returned a punt with the Bears ahead 47-20 in the fourth quarter. What was the most dynamic runner in the NFL, just 22, doing back there on a bad field with a 27-point lead?
He was being Gale Sayers. The rookie from Kansas returned the punt 85 yards for his sixth touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. But even George Halas had his limit. Though the home crowd was encouraging Halas to give Sayers a chance for a record-breaking seventh TD with the Bears inside the 10 later in the game, Halas wouldn’t do it.
‘‘Nobody was hungrier than I for Gale to break [the record],” Halas said after the 61-20 win. ‘‘But I never would have been able to forgive myself if he had gotten hurt.”
Three years later, Halas’ worst fears were realized. On ‘‘28-toss,” a pitchout and sweep to the short side of the field he had run 100 times before, Sayers was running behind guard Randy Jackson when 49ers cornerback Kermit Alexander went low to take on the blocker and got Sayers’ right knee instead. The impact ruptured every ligament on the inside of the knee.
‘‘The knee is gone,” Sayers told Dr. Ted Fox, the team physician, on the sideline. And it was. Sayers was in surgery before many of his teammates were home.
The impact was as immense as the devastation. Though many Bears fans didn’t see the play – the game not televised locally because of an NFL blackout rule – Sayers’ injury was a blow to Chicago, the Bears and the NFL. Mayor Daley introduced a resolution extending best wishes to Sayers for a speedy recovery; it passed unanimously. Commissioner Pete Rozelle called Sayers to offer his sympathy. Alexander was as crestfallen on that day as Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins was after Derrick Rose suffered a similarly devastating injury in Game 1 of their playoff series Saturday. Sayers received hundreds of get-well cards from broken-hearted kids from the Chicago Boys Clubs.
It was arguably the most devastating injury in Chicago sports history. Sayers returned for the 1969 season with his knee repaired (though not reconstructed, like they do arthroscopically today). The first time he touched the ball in a game, he returned the opening kickoff 69 yards in the exhibition opener at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,032 yards in 14 games.
But he was never the same. Sayers’ longest run that season was 29 yards. He averaged 24.2 yards on 17 kick returns – a far cry from the 37.7 yards he averaged as the most lethal kick returner in NFL history in 1967.
In Chicago, there was the same kind of sadness that hung over the United Center as Rose hobbled to midcourt before the Bulls-Sixers game Tuesday night – until Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer and Sayers’ injury was quickly put in perspective. After that, there was just regret that the greatest runner anybody had ever seen would never be the same.
Other injuries might have been more costly in terms of championships – with a healthy Jim McMahon, the Bears could have won another Super Bowl or two. But the Sayers injury still tops the list of devastating injuries in Chicago sports. Sayers hurt his left leg in the 1970 preseason, had three more surgeries and played in only four more games before retiring before the 1972 season.
And contrary to popular belief, Sayers’ injury hampered the Bears’ playoff hopes in 1968. The Bears had won four consecutive games and, at 5-4, were tied for first place when he suffered the original injury. They finished 7-7, a game behind the Minnesota Vikings, whom they had beaten twice in the regular season.
With the Rose injury still yet to be played out, here’s the rest of the list:
2. Derrick RoseBulls (2012)
Fans still are in a daze over his sudden demise in Game 1 against the Sixers. But with advantages of modern medicine Sayers never had, Rose still could return with the same skills. He’ll just have to be a little smarter about when to use them.
3. Mark PriorCubs (2004)
Prior looked like a perennial Cy Young contender when he went 18-6 with a 2.43 ERA at age 22 in 2003. But an Achilles injury that seemed no big deal in spring training in 2004 was the beginning of the end. Beset by one injury after another, Prior was 18-17 with a 4.27 in the next three seasons and was let go in 2007.
4. Jim McMahonBears (1986)
Injuries to McMahon damaged the Bears’ title hopes in 1984, 1986, 1987 and 1988. If you have to pick one injury, the season-ending separated shoulder after Charles Martin’s cheap shot stands out. The defending Super Bowl champions were 6-0 with McMahon in 1986 before the injury. But they lost to the Redskins in the playoffs with Doug Flutie at quarterback.
5. Tommie HarrisBears (2006)
Harris made coach Lovie Smith’s cover-2 defense work like no other player, including Brian Urlacher. He made the Pro Bowl in 2005 and was dominant in ’06 until he injured his hamstring against the Vikings. After surgery, he had eight sacks in 2007 and made the Pro Bowl, but he and the Bears’ defense were never the same.
6. Jay CutlerBears (2011) >>
The Bears were about to win their fifth consecutive game and move to 7-3 when Cutler suffered a broken thumb trying to make a tackle after an interception against the Chargers. The Bears lost five consecutive games with Caleb Hanie at quarterback and fell out of playoff contention.
7. Kerry WoodCubs (1999)
The No. 4 pick of the 1995 draft, Wood was a sensation at 20 in 1998 when he struck out 20 Astros and pitched a one-hitter in his fifth major-league start. He went 13-6, struck out 233 batters in 1662/3 innings and won the National League Rookie of the Year Award. But he missed the 1999 season with torn elbow ligaments and never again reached the heights of his rookie year.
8. Brian UrlacherBears (2009)
After finally acquiring a ‘‘franchise” quarterback in Cutler, the Bears lost their franchise defender after one half of the season opener against the Packers when Urlacher dislocated his wrist and was out for the season. Without Urlacher, the Bears allowed 375 points (21st in the NFL), still the most under Smith.
9. Michael JordanBulls (1985)
The Bulls were 3-0 when Jordan suffered a broken foot at Golden State. Expected to miss 25 games, he missed 64. The Bulls went 21-43 without him, but Jordan rallied his team into the playoffs, where he had his monumental 63-point game against the Celtics. Jordan recovered and, eventually, so did the Bulls.
10. Chris CheliosBlackhawks (1996)
With Chelios about to win his third Norris Trophy, the Blackhawks swept the Flames in the first round of the playoffs and led the Avalanche 2-1 in the conference semifinals when Chelios suffered a groin injury. A novocaine shot numbed his entire leg, and he missed Game 4, which the Hawks lost 3-2 in triple overtime. They lost the series 4-2, and the Avalanche went on to win the Stanley Cup.