If you met the late Gale Sayers, and I had that privilege several times, your first thought might have been "this guy did all that?"
He wasn't that tall and he wasn't muscle bound. He played at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, He was soft-spoken and seemed more like a business executive than a football player. He was bright, you could tell that for sure.
Sayers, a two-time All-American running back and kick returner at Kansas, was drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965 and took the NFL by storm.
Freshman were not eligible during Sayers' collegiate career and, during the 1962-64 seasons, he compiled 3,917 all-purpose yards. Sayers led the Big Eight Conference with 1,125 yards rushing his first season, which ranked third nationally, and averaged a nation-leading 7.1 yards per carry.
The next season, he became the first player in NCAA Division IA history to record a 99-yard TD run. Fittingly, the young man from Omaha accomplished the feat against Nebraska. He also returned a 96-yard kickoff in a 15-14 KU upset over Oklahoma.
During his seven-year career with the Bears, which was shortened by a devastating knee injury in 1968, Sayers rushed for 4,956 yards, scored 39 touchdowns and was named All-Pro X five times. He would become the youngest player inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame at 34 in 1977.
I've shared some tales of my days as an equipment manager with the KU Jayhawks football team during the 1979-82 seasons. Sayers and quarterback John Hadl are the greatest two KU football players, and Hadl was offensive coordinator and assistant head coach during my tenure. I worked alongside Hadl for three years before he became head coach of the USFL's L.A. Express franchise.
One afternoon there was a buzz in the football building. KU basketball head coach Ted Owens and several of the school's top administrators were around. Hadl was a bit late to the practice field. I soon learned why.
Gale Sayers was in the building. This was in 1979, two years after he became a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
Sayers came out to practice, and this would be the first time I met him. I told him that his six-touchdown game against the San Francisco in December 1965 on a muddy Wrigley Field gridiron is the first memory of the NFL that I could recall. I was five at the time.
"It was freezing that day," he said with a smile.
He didn't recount all the TDs or how a great a day it was for him. His historic game took second place to his remembering he was cold when he accomplished this great feat.
Born in Wichita, Sayers would grow up in Omaha, not far from St. Louis Cardinals Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Gibson. Nebraska wasn't ready to have a Black guy as a football star just yet, which is a leading reason that Sayers landed at Kansas.
Like Gibson, Sayers was thrust into a sports world rife with racism.
The N-word and other racial insults were still flying from the stands of Big 8 stadiums when I was on the sideline during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s. You can just imagine what it was like in the early 1960s.
Sayers put up with it, as did all Black players. They had no choice.
Sayers was drafted by the Bears on March 6, 1965. The Bloody Sunday march was held in Selma, Ala., the following day. On Monday, Sayers was arrested while staging a sit-in to protest discrimination at KU housing and Greek housing.
When interviewed, Sayers told reporters, “They respect me as a football star, but not as a Negro."
Segregation was still very much a part of the NFL when Sayers arrived in 1965.
His Bears team, coached by George Halas, did not allow Black and white players to room together during training camp or when the team traveled for road games.
That changed when Sayers and the late Brian Piccolo became friends and roommates. Their friendship and Piccolo's unfortunate fate would become legendary.
Piccolo, a fellow running back, would be diagnosed with cancer. It ended his career and then took his life in 1970.
The relationship was captured in a made-for-TV movie entitled “Brian's Song.” Starring Billy D. Williams and James Caan, the film would later be shown in movie theaters and received critical acclaim.
I mentioned that Sayers' knee injury, which occurred in 1968, cost him a lengthy career. This was before the amazing types of surgery that can save athletic careers in all sports today. His knee was a painful wreck.
Yet, he gutted it out after being pushed to return to football by Piccolo. He pieced together a season in which he rushed for an NFL-leading 1,032 yards. He averaged 4.4 yards per carry during the 14-game season. It is called Sayers' greatest year and he was awarded the NFL's Most Courageous Player Award, which is now called Comeback Player of the Year.
In all, Sayers would play in just 68 games with the Bears. But his amazing talent led to his NFL Hall of Fame enshrinement.
Sayers was a Bear in 1970-71, but he rarely played. After retiring in 1972, Sayers served as assistant athletic director at KU for four years. While in Lawrence, Sayers completed a BA in physical education. He earned an MA in educational administration in 1977, two months before his Hall of Fame celebration.
Sayers served as athletic director at SIU-Carbondale for four years before founding technology and consulting businesses in Chicago.
He would later say, "You must prepare to quit, and they should start doing that from day one because the average life of a pro-football player is only three and a half years. It's not five. It's not seven. It's not 10.”
Football also took a dreadful toll on Sayers' mind, along with his body. He suffered from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease at the time of his death on Sept. 23, 2020. He was 77.
A lawsuit was filed in Sayers' name in 2013 against the NFL, alleging that repeated head injuries during his career "were handled negligently.” The suit was withdrawn when Sayers said he had not given his approval. However, Sayers refiled the suit in January 2014 along with six other former players. It was instrumental in the NFL's decision to reach settlements with former players dealing with concussions.
These words from his Hall of Fame speech in 1977 still ring true today.
"We hear a lot today about how the American people have lost their dedication to excellence. I don't believe that is true," he said.
“Each of us excels at different things, sometimes in areas that are only a hobby, more often in our life vocation. The most important thing, however, is to strive to do our very best.
"Nothing is more of a waste than unrealized potential. Sometimes failure to use one’s talents to the fullest is often the fault of the individual."
Rest in peace, Gale. You were so much more than just a football player.
Heat of the night
The Miami Heat vs. L.A. Lakers NBA Finals got underway on Wednesday night after the heat dispatched of the favored Boston Celtics in a six-game NBA Eastern Conference Final battle.
After scoring no points in a pivotal Game 4, Jayson Tatum poured in 28 points in the second half - but the Celtics still fell.
“I wasn’t aggressive enough I didn’t score in the first half. That’s unacceptable,” Tatum said. “I know I have to play better. That’s what I tried to do [in the second half].”
While his second half was amazing, Tatum had a pair of costly turnovers late in the game.
He would rebound with a 31-point effort in Boston's 121-105 Game 5 victory, but the Heat prevailed in Game 6 125-113 to move on to the Finals.
While it was interrupted for months, and concluded in an Orlando "bubble, Tatum the finest season of his career and is now recognized as one of the NBA's brightest young stars.
He is under contract through the 2020-21 season, and is eligible for a five-year rookie-scale extension that would be worth around $160 million.
"I haven't even thought about that yet," Tatum said following his team's exit from the playoffs.
"I was just focused on this season. The front office and my agent gotta talk about it. But I'm not thinking about that right now. We just lost a series. Just thinking about the guys in the locker room and the games. That's what I'm thinking about. Stuff like that, going to happen, if it happens, [is] not really my concern. I'm not even thinking about that."
It's almost been a week since losing to the Heat. I'm sure young Mr. Tatum is thinking about it now.
The Reid Roundup
Guess which team also drafted Gale Sayers in 1965? The AFL’s Kansas City Chiefs.
After reportedly being passed on by the St. Louis Cardinals repeated times, San Diego Padres star shortstop Fernando Tatis, Jr., is taking on the Redbirds in the Wild-Card best two-of-three series.
I still doubt that Dak Prescott will be the Dallas Cowboys quarterback in 2022.
What is up with Ezekiel Elliott? Something is off in his game.
Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes outdueled Baltimore Ravens QB and reigning MVP Lamar Jackson for a third time in their careers in Monday night's 34-20 victory. When he counted on his fingers to four after his fourth TD pass of the night, Mahomes was reminding the NFL world that Jackson, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson and L.A. Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald placed in front of him in a ranking of the NFL's Top 100 players.
Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy looked very head coach-like when a fumble deep in Ravens' territory and a failed fourth-and-one play kept his team from blowing out Baltimore. He berated everyone on the offense - including Mahomes when his unit came off the field. It responded with a game-sealing touchdown drive.
First-year Missouri head coach Eliah Drinkwitz called a timeout with nine seconds left in Alabama's 38-19 blowout victory over the Tigers. Alabama coach Nick Saban had taken mercy on Missouri by the fourth quarter. When Missouri scored a TD on the next play and it was obvious Saban was not thrilled when the coaches met after the game at midfield. Rest assured, Saban won't forget what happened.
Alvin A. Reid was honored as the 2017 “Best Sports Columnist – Weeklies” in the Missouri Press Association’s Better Newspaper Contest and is a New York Times contributor. He is a panelist on the Nine Network program, Donnybrook, a weekly contributor to “The Charlie Tuna Show” on KFNS and appears monthly on “The Dave Glover Show” on 97.1 Talk.” His Twitter handle is @aareid1.