Five seasons. Sixty-eight games. That’s all it took for Gale Sayers to prove to everyone he was one of the greatest running backs in football history (at the time only Jim Brown would have been argued to be in the same stratosphere). Just five, and those five seasons still hold up today to put Sayers into the conversation of the top-five running backs of all-time. Still. Even Brown needed eight seasons. Barry Sanders played for 10, and Sayers needed only half of that.
Sanders is the obvious parallel for Sayers, or to put it more accurately, the other way around. Whereas Brown could run through several walls and/or turn defenders into mulch on his way to the markers or end zone, Sayers and Sanders both took on an almost gaseous form, where tacklers couldn’t even lay a hand on them, or even perceive where they were going. They weren’t a force so much as a celestial being. Brown’s movements you could understand, even if he was the only one capable. He just went forward and through. Sayers, and then Sanders after him, weaved patterns and movements that simply hadn’t been seen.
Sayers also had to do it in an era where defensive players were essentially allowed to bring spiked bats and crowbars onto the field with them, and only had to fear a flag for improper handling of said weapons.
The highlight reels of Sayers are of course numerous, which again is surprising given only five years worth of footage to work with. Such was Sayers’ potential to pop any run or return — and he often did — that he could fill up a highlight reel with only 68 games worth of work.
The numbers are there if you need them. Sayers’s 5.0 yards-per-carry average still ranks him sixth all-time among running backs, the same exact figure that Sanders achieved. He was also the only player named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary team twice, both at running back and at returner. And there is the record-tying six-TD game done on December 12, 1965.
Of course, like pretty much every other Bears great, except for the one to directly follow him, his career lacked that extra sheen thanks to institutional incompetence. The Bears only finished above. 500 once in Sayers’ career, and never came close to a championship.
Perhaps a couple of generations of Bears fans had (and I’m really stretching to put that in past tense) such a blighted view of how football should be played because they were gifted with two of the best running backs ever to play. Walter Payton would arrive just a few years after Sayers had to retire, thanks to a knee injury that begat the “Saw” movies. And because Payton was made of some alien material that no NASA satellite or rover has ever been able to rediscover, fans were treated to him for another 13 seasons, or nearly three times the amount of Sayers they got at his peak. They also got Payton get to play on some genuinely great teams, eventually. Perhaps it was just assumed the Bears would always find a franchise-defining running back. How preposterous that seems now. How good we had it.
Sayers was part of probably the greatest draft class the Bears have ever put together, as it also included Dick Butkus. That might be an indictment on the whole team since, but here we are. But whereas Butkus was born in Chicago, had gone to U. of Illinois and was pretty much every Bears fans’ idealization/wet dream of what a Bear should be, Sayers came from Kansas. And also, it must take stones the size of Kansas to arrive in Chicago — a city somehow more racially segregated then as it is now, which is quite a task — and tell everyone all you need is “18 inches of daylight,” and then back it up, and make even the most prejudiced heart love you for it.
Tales of Sayers’s magnanimity after his playing days run rampant throughout Chicago, as he seemingly had time for anyone who asked for it. Sadly, like far too many ex-players, Sayers dies without any memory of what he had accomplished and how much he meant to so many. Sayers battled dementia for the last decade of his life, though he wasn’t diagnosed until 2013. It’s heartbreaking for someone who can only be described as an artist. Seemingly only in football does the actual art destroy the creator of it, loosening and then severing the personal connection between the two.
At least we have the highlights, a lot of fans will have the memories, and even more will have visions of their exchanges with the man. In a game that changes as rapidly as football does, it’s nearly impossible for a player to remain vital or historic for even a decade or two. Sayers has been cemented as one of the best to ever do it for 50 years now. Probably won’t change in the next 50 either.