On Wednesday morning, the Chicago sports world and the NFL were sadden by passing of Gale Sayers. Sayers’ is considered one of the greatest running backs of all time and is seen as one of the most iconic players in NFL history. The Hall of Fame running back’s career was cut short due to numerous injuries, and he has never shied away from saying that he played in the wrong time due to medical shortcomings, but it also holds true for where football was at as a whole at the time.
Hall of Famer Dick Butkus: “Will miss a great friend who helped me become the player I became because after practicing and scrimmaging against Gale I knew I could play against anybody. We lost one of the best Bears ever and more importantly we lost a great person.”
— Chicago Bears (@ChicagoBears) September 23, 2020
Sayers was drafted fourth overall by the Chicago Bears in the 1965 NFL Draft and would go on to play seven seasons with the team. In his rookie season, he set an NFL record for most touchdowns scoring 22 total touchdowns on offense and special teams, including a six-touchdown performance against the San Francisco 49ers on December 12th. Sayers was a five-time All-Pro and was named to the Pro Bowl three times.
Gale Sayers was a rookie in 1965 when he scored SIX touchdowns in a single game for the @ChicagoBears.
— Sunday Night Football (@SNFonNBC) September 23, 2020
In the final two seasons of his career, Sayers only played in four total games as each season was cut short due to knee injuries. At the time, there was little to no focus on sports medicine and how to treat sports-related injuries. The surgeries and rehab Sayers went through were nowhere close to how the same injuries are treated and rehabbed today.
When people talk about Gale Sayers, it's always assumed Kermit Alexander hit/1st knee injury ended his career Nov 68. But Sayers came back from primitive surgery to rush for 1,032 yds in '69. Also was slower and got pounded that year and after. (h/t @pfref ) pic.twitter.com/AAFxtS9niE
— Tim Layden (@ByTimLayden) September 23, 2020
Injuries aside, Sayers’ career was remarkable for how popular he was, despite the NFL being a couple of years away from its popularity explosion. The legendary running back played in the late 60s and early 70s when a majority of NFL games were still consumed by radio, and there wasn’t the national demand for the sport yet. It wouldn’t be until the mid-70s where all NFL games were broadcasted every Sunday with a pre and post-game show to highlight the league’s stars. Sayers’ running style was remarkable, but fans didn’t see just how great his runs were until after his career was over.
Furthermore, Sayers never got to display his talents in front of a national audience. Monday Night Football debuted in 1970, but of the two games the Bears appeared on Monday Night Football, the Hall of Fame running back was already sidelined with injuries. Imagine how memorable it would have been having legendary commentator Howard Cosell calling a Sayers touchdown run in which he made defenders miss. A run like that would have easily been one of the most famous moments in Monday Night Football history.
Locally, Sayers was ahead of his time as he only played one game at the historic Soldier Field. Remembered for making his memorable runs on the muddy grass of Wrigley Field, he never got had a signature run or moment with the backdrop of the iconic Colonnades. Sayers’ career should have also overlapped with the arrival of another Bears legendary running back in Walter Payton.
It was a four-year gap from Sayers’ last game in the NFL to Payton’s first game in the league. Imagine the memorable photos and highlights that would dominate the NFL to this day had the two been on the field at the same time together. Sayers’ career should have also had a fitting end. The last game of his career came in the 1972 preseason when he tried to come back but failed to do so.
Sayers’ career deserved to end with an ending that was similar to Payton’s, where he would have been honored before the game and had his jersey retired right after the season was over. Instead, the running back would have to wait until Halloween night of 1994, where he would give his jersey retirement speech during a torrential rainstorm in cold temperatures.
Halloween Night, 1994.
— Chicago History ™️ (@Chicago_History) September 23, 2020
The Bears Hall of Fame running back deserved better, not by the team, but by fate itself. For as great and memorable Sayers’ career was, he was robbed of the fame and longevity that would have been brought on by the league’s TV popularity and by sports medicine. Imagine just how many more iconic moments the running back would have had, had he played just years later.