What made Gale Sayers so special and why he’d fit in well in today’s NFL

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George Halas, the 70-year-old head coach of the Chicago Bears in 1965, stepped in front of reporters after rookie Gale Sayers scored six touchdowns in a 61-20 victory over San Francisco on Dec. 12, 1965.

“That,” Halas said, “was the most impressive game I’ve ever seen by a player in all my years in football.”

Halas had been playing or coaching pro football since 1919.

I loved Sayers, who died this week at age 77 after living with dementia. As a kid who grew up loving all sports, I remember Sayers was the first athlete who amazed me. How does he do that? Take a minute and watch this highlight reel of the six touchdowns by the 6-foot-1 comet who was a chiseled 200 pounds—80-yard screen pass and sprint, 21-yard run and dive, 7-yard run, 50-yard run, 1-yard dive landing his head in the end zone, and 85-yard punt return, with a cut left at his own 40-yard line that looked like it had to have been done on a pristine field with zero slippage, not on a muddy bog after some heavy rain at Wrigley Field.

Sayers touched the ball 16 times that day. He gained 336 total yards. The next year he had a 339-yard game, and when the NFL turned 50 in 1970, those were two of three biggest all-purpose yardage games in NFL history.

Did you see number 64 in white (or white and mud) on that highlight package? You might have seen 64 flopping around in the mud like so many of his Niners mates on the video. That’s Dave Wilcox, the Pro Football Hall of Fame linebacker. He’s 77 now (78 tomorrow), and was 23 that muddy day at Wrigley. I spoke with him the other night, and his memory of the day is quite good.

“I remember that day very well,” Wilcox said from his home in Oregon. “We woke up in the hotel in Chicago that morning and we were kind of happy. ‘It’s gonna rain! It’ll slow Sayers down!’ I tell everyone if they hadn’t run out of oxygen that day, Gale might have scored six more. I remember our game plan—if they threw passes in the flat for him, they wanted us [the linebackers] to cover him. I said, ‘You want US to cover that guy? We won’t even get close to him in the tunnel before the game!’ “

On that screen pass, Sayers took it to his right, and then Wilcox flashed on the film briefly, but Sayers put his foot in the ground, sprinted left, and he was gone. No chance for any Niner. Time and again: Sayers is running pretty normally, and everyone else is slipping all over the place. His cut on that 85-yard punt return caused two Niners to go careening past comically.

“You look back,” said Wilcox, “and the first thing you say is, ‘How lucky was I to be in the same ballpark that day, on the field with such a great player?’ After a while, you knew there was no way anyone would catch him—he’d have to trip or slide. Jim Brown was bigger and stronger, but there was nothing like Sayers’ speed and quickness. I mean, to this day, I haven’t seen anything like it. Not even Barry Sanders. He’s the only one who’s close. No human being should be able to change directions with the quickness and speed Gale had.”

The next season, at the Pro Bowl, Wilcox and Sayers were in the same locker room for the first time. They hadn’t met. Wilcox approached him and stuck out his hand.

“Gale, my name’s Dave Wilcox, with the 49ers,” he said. “I just wanted to meet you and see what you looked like up close.”

Three other things about Sayers.

He’d fit in well today, in all ways. Not only would he be a Kamara-type force in a spread offense, only quicker, but he’d be right with Patrick Mahomes and Malcolm Jenkins off the field too. After being drafted by the Bears, while finishing his senior year at Kansas, the Bloody Sunday march was held in Selma, Ala. The next day, Sayers was arrested while staging a sit-in to protest discrimination at KU housing and Greek housing. “They respect me as a football star, but not as a Negro,” he told reporters.

He helped break down racial barriers. In 1967, the Bears roomed Sayers with a white backup running back, Brian Piccolo. It was the start of a three-year friendship on and off the field that ended when Piccolo died of cancer in 1970. Piccolo pushed Sayers to come back from a major knee injury in 1969, and Sayers doted on Piccolo when he was ill. In early 1970, Sayers was presented with the league’s most courageous player award for the 1969 season, and he told a New York banquet crowd that the award was his that night, but it would be in Piccolo’s hands the next day. That’s why you might have seen the Bill Dee Williams/James Caan “Brian’s Song” movie on TV last week. Seven months after scoring his final NFL touchdown, Piccolo died in New York. After the movie came out, the students in a New York City middle school were so inspired they got the city to rename the school after Piccolo.

He’s an interesting Hall of Fame argument. Over the years, people have pointed to the short career of Sayers (68 games, four full seasons, only 991 rushes) as an example of over-rewarding a meteoric career. My retort: Watch the grainy highlights. To me, Sayers was spectacular enough in his four full seasons to earn a spot in Canton, and we haven’t even mentioned the fact that his 30.56-yard average kickoff return is the best in NFL history and hasn’t been touched in the 49 years since his retirement. I’ve always thought Sayers is the classic example for Hall voters of judging what your eyes see, not what the stats say. And the stats are pretty good anyway, just shallow.

Read more from Peter King’s Football Morning in America column here.