By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Some of my fondest memories as a child were made possible by the remarkable Gale Sayers.
I didn’t have the pleasure of watching most of what he accomplished as a running back for the Chicago Bears because I was only two years old when Sayers entered the NFL in 1965.
But thanks to my father, and to the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song,” I learned about Sayers’ greatness when I still was young and searching for star athletes to admire, and to emulate.
To say that I was fascinated by Sayers, would be an understatement.
He was my first, and still my favorite sports figure of all time, followed by former New York Knicks guard Walt Frazier.
The only thing I like more than watching video of Secreteriat’s incredible march to the 1973 Triple Crown, is watching tape of Sayers run the football because there is nobody else like him.
His elusive running style was poetry in motion, and even his name, and just the way it sounds, fits perfectly with his rare skill set.
My father used to tell me that Sayers had eyes in the back of his head, and he also raved about how Sayers could change directions without slowing down.
I respected my father’s opinion, but especially when it came to football, and more specifically, when it came to running backs because my father was a pretty good running back himself, good enough to have earned a full scholarship to Notre Dame in 1945 after a standout career at Dowling High School, which was in Des Moines at the time.
My father held Sayers to the highest regard as a running back, even though their styles were vastly different with my father more of a power runner who weighed about 215 pounds at a time in the 1940s when many linemen didn’t even weigh that much.
It wouldn’t surprise me if my father and Sayers are talking football in Heaven right now.
Sayers passed away on Wednesday at the age of 77, while my father passed away on March 11, 2018 and just a week before his 92nd birthday.
Sayers struggled with dementia in his later years, whereas as in my father’s case, his body just eventually broke down.
Another reason I think my father admired Sayers so much is because Sayers had his career cut short by knee injuries, while my father suffered a career-ending knee injury as a freshman at Notre Dame.
Sayers never was the same after his first knee injury in 1968, but he still battled back from it to become a 1,000-yard rusher.
In fact, Sayers led the NFL in rushing during the 1969 season with 1,032 yards, and was the only player to gain over 1,000 yards rushing that season.
Sayers accomplished that despite having lost both speed and acceleration because of the knee injury. He almost had to reinvent himself as a runner because his body couldn’t do the incredible things it used to do in the open field.
And yet, Sayers still found a way to be effective, and that only added to his growing legend.
Sayers suffered another knee injury in the 1970 season, and then his 1971 season was cut short by an ankle injury.
He tried to make yet another comeback in 1972, but fumbled twice on three carries in his only appearance in a preseason game. He then retired just days later.
Sayers played seven seasons with the Bears, but injuries limited him to just five seasons of play, and yet, he still was a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee, and deservedly so.
The Chicago Bears selected Sayers with the fourth pick overall in the 1965 NFL Draft, and he immediately started paying huge dividends as Sayers scored an NFL record 22 touchdowns as a rookie. He also gained 2,272 all-purpose yards and averaged 5.2 yards per rushing attempt and 17.5 yards per reception as a rookie.
Sayers then led the league in rushing with 1,231 yards during the 1966 season, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He also became the first halfback to win the rushing title since 1949, and he led the Bears in receiving with 34 catches, 447 yards, and two more touchdowns.
If I could pick my all-time offensive backfield, the one certainty would be Gale Sayers at halfback, and as a punt returner.
Sayers repeatedly left defenders grabbing for air with his elusive and mercurial running style.
He carried about 200 pounds on a sturdy 6-foot frame, so he wasn’t undersized, as are a lot of elusive runners who learn to run that way partly out of necessity.
Sayers graduated from Central High School in Omaha, Neb., where he starred in football and track and field. He set a state long jump record with a leap of 24 feet, 10 ½ inches as a senior in 1961.
That distance would win a lot of state titles still to this day, let alone almost 60 years ago.
Sayers was way ahead of his time as an athlete, and as a running back.
He was recruited by several Midwestern programs before signing with the University of Kansas where he gained a Big Eight Conference-record 4,020 all-purpose yards.
Sayers’ electrifying running style earned him the nickname “Kansas Comet” while in college.
But there is also an Iowa Hawkeye connection to Sayers in that he originally wanted to attend Iowa, which was coming off a dominant run under head coach Forest Evashevski, who had resigned after the 1960 season to become the Iowa Athletic Director and was replaced by Jerry Burns.
Sayers was being interviewed during a broadcast of a Chicago Cubs game on Sept. 8, 2010 when he said that he wanted to attend Iowa, but then changed his mind after Burns did not have time to meet with Sayers during a campus visit.
Just imagine Gale Sayers as a Hawkeye, gliding up and down the field at Kinnick Stadium while making defenders look silly and overmatched.
Ronnie Harmon and Tavian Banks are probably the closest I’ve seen to Sayers in a Hawkeye uniform.
But again, Sayers was in a class all by himself.
He is the standard for which all other elusive running backs are compared to and judged.
Sayers would go on to become an athletic administrator after his playing days, and was the athletic director at Southern Illinois University from 1976-81, and the interim athletic director at Tennessee State in 1985 and 1986.
In 2009, Sayers returned to the Kansas Athletic Department as Director of Fundraising for Special Projects.
The only thing Gale Sayers didn’t have was enough time on the field to add to his legend. He was so physically gifted, but lacked durability.
Or maybe, he was just unlucky when it comes to injuries.
Sayers was also ahead of his time when it comes to race relations.
He and fellow running back Brian Piccolo became the first interracial roommates in the NFL, and their friendship later became the inspiration for the movie, Brian’s Song.
The movie focused largely on Piccolo’s struggle with cancer, and on how Sayers stuck by his side until Piccolo passed away in June 1970.
Brian’s Song is the first movie that made me cry. And part of the reason I cried is because my father also became emotional while watching the movie.
I still can remember my father tearing up near the end of the movie, and my father rarely showed that kind of raw emotion.
Gale Sayers wasn’t just a great running back, but also a great person, as was shown in the movie.
The fact that Sayers struggled with dementia in his later years makes you wonder if it was caused by the pounding he took as a running back.
My belief is that Gale Sayers is in a better place now, reunited with Brian Piccolo, and with his legend firmly intact.
This column is my way of saying thanks for bringing so much joy and entertainment to my life, and for doing it with a unique style and grace.