Today, Gale Sayers likely would have returned from knee injury

When the late Gale Sayers suffered a devastating knee injury in 1968, the procedure to repair the damage was archaic by today’s standards. With today’s arthroscopic ACL reconstructions, “he would have had a greater chance ... of looking like his old self,” orthopedic surgeon Dr. Brian Cole said.

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The Sun-Times’ back page told the sad story of Gale Sayers’ injury against the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 10, 1968.

The Sun-Times’ back page told the sad story of Gale Sayers’ injury against the San Francisco 49ers on Nov. 10, 1968.

Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers was ahead of his time as a dynamic athlete who could accelerate in an instant and change direction at high speed like few — if any — athletes of his day.

Unfortunately, medical procedures for knee injuries weren’t quite there yet. So when Sayers suffered torn anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments with cartilage damage in his right knee in 1968, the procedure to repair the damage was archaic by today’s standards.

‘‘He would have had a greater chance of coming back and looking like his old self,’’ said Dr. Brian Cole, a sports-medicine surgeon with Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush. ‘‘And a greater chance of not ending up with end-stage arthritis [in his knee] like he did [later in life].

‘‘But nothing is assured. Some athletes don’t come back after ACL reconstructions. But, statistically, most NFL players come back within a year. And they come back better than they were before.’’

When Sayers was injured Nov. 10, 1968, he had surgery on his right knee that night — something that today is done three to four weeks after the injury. And he was in a cast for six weeks, which also isn’t done today.

‘‘What [surgeons] used to do is put a staple in the medial collateral ligament, so you wouldn’t have side-to-side instability,’’ said Dr. Cole, the longtime team physician for the Bulls and co-team physician for the White Sox and De Paul. ‘‘[They] would let the ACL scar in, and maybe they would do an open incision to remove torn cartilage. And then they’d put him in a cast for six weeks. And they would get stable because they would just turn to stone.

‘‘When you have an acute trauma, you operated within 24 hours. The risk of stiffness, even without a cast, goes up exponentially. Many of these guys didn’t have ACL instability, but that’s because they had arthrofibrosis [a buildup of scar tissue] of their knee. They would just get a stiff, scarred knee that wouldn’t lead to instability but would compromise their agility and their ability to play.’’

After Sayers surgery and through his rehabilitation, Bears team physician Dr. Ted Fox, who performed the surgery, was cautiously upbeat about Sayers’ return.

‘‘If any player in history ever came back from a knee injury, Gale will do it,’’ Dr. Fox told the Tribune’s Cooper Rollow in 1969. ‘‘He had what we call a terrible triad: two torn ligaments and a ruptured cartilage on his right knee. The knee was bent 90 degrees sideways. But he had the grit to endure the pain necessary for total rehabilitation. I predict Gale will have the greatest year of his career.’’


Sayers’ recovery was indeed impressive. After returning in time for training camp in 1969, he returned the opening kickoff of the preseason 94 yards for an apparent touchdown against the Redskins (in Vince Lombardi’s first game as Redskins coach) but stepped out of bounds at the 25-yard line.

He started slowly in the regular season. In his first five games, he averaged 45 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry with no touchdowns. In the next six games, however, Sayers averaged 103.5 yards and 5.4 yards per carry with seven touchdowns, including 112 yards on 28 carries and two touchdowns in a 38-7 rout of the Steelers. It would turn out to be the Bears’ lone victory that season.

Sayers ended up leading the NFL in rushing in that comeback season, the only player to rush for more than 1,000 yards. It was a magnificent accomplishment, considering not only the severity of his injury but the fact he was a marked man in an offense that had few weapons.

But as impressive as that was, Sayers wasn’t the same dynamic player. His longest rush all season was 28 yards.

There’s no way to know for sure what Sayers would have accomplished with modern knee-surgery techniques, but Adrian Peterson’s recovery from a torn ACL/MCL in 2012 is a pretty fair standard.

Peterson was the best running back in the NFL, averaging 92.5 yards per game in five seasons, when he suffered his injury at 26 in 2011 (Sayers was 25). After surgery, he had the best season of his career, leading the NFL with 2,097 yards — nine yards short of the single-season rushing record.

But he had the advantage of getting hurt in 2011, when arthroscopic ACL reconstructions are the norm.

‘‘We’re much more aggressive about maintaining muscle mass and preventing atrophy and scar [tissue] than we were then,’’ Dr. Cole said. ‘‘We didn’t have these things then. It was only in the 1970s that we really started to change from these soft-tissue procedures that would tighten up the knee to performing ACL reconstructions.’’

Sayers, though, could not stay healthy. He suffered three injuries to his left leg early in the 1970 season that limited him to two games, capped by a season-ending knee injury he incurred while chasing the Vikings’ Alan Page on a fumble recovery that required surgery.

He suffered another knee injury in 1971 that also limited him to two games and retired at 29 after struggling through the 1972 preseason. He was an athlete whose skills were ahead of his time.

‘‘He was a guy that had amazing skill,’’ Dr. Cole said. ‘‘I bet he would have had a really long career. He might have been a guy who could still perform in today’s world, despite the evolution of how our athletes are today, when you look at his overall athleticism.

‘‘You can’t say that about everyone. He was a definite unicorn. He’s someone I would have loved to have met.’’

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