The eyes have it when it comes to assessing the greatness of Gale Sayers
The greatness of Gale Sayers wasn’t measured by numbers. It was measured by eyesight. If you saw him, you believed.
And I believed.
That’s why Sayers’ death Wednesday at the age of 77 resonated so deeply with anyone who grew up watching him dodge opponents. He was unlike anything we’d seen.
It wasn’t the speed that got your attention. It was the beauty with which he carried that speed. He never throttled down after accelerating through a hole or pivoting on a sharp angle to his right or left, leaving a trail of would-be tacklers behind. But he did it so gracefully, so effortlessly, that Hall-of-Fame voter Dan Pompei called him “the most elegant runner ever,” while San Diego Union-Tribune columnist Nick Canepa, a former Hall-of-Fame voter, named him “Football’s Astaire.”
“Trying to tackle Gale Sayers,” former NFL Films president Steve Sabol once said, “is like trying to catch a candy wrapper in a wind storm.”
Like others, I first saw him running across a black-and-white TV screen in 1965. It was when highlights of the Bears’ 61-20 blowout of San Francisco in the mud of Wrigley Field were aired, with Sayers – then a rookie -- scoring six times. I was immediately hooked.
So was anyone else who watched. It wasn’t hard. Gale Sayers was preternatural, an extraordinary talent who enchanted us. Dallas had America’s Team. Chicago had America’s Gift.
We didn’t need analytics or stat geeks to tell us what Sayers brought to the NFL. We trusted our eyes. And our eyes told us this was something so unique, so extraordinary, so exhilarating, that it couldn’t possibly last forever.
Sadly, it did not. Sayers dazzled the league for five seasons before injuries cut short his career. But in those five years he left such an indelible impression on those who watched him that when his death was announced Wednesday an entire nation grieved. It didn’t matter that you weren’t a Bears’ fan. You were a Gale Sayers fan. And you knew that nothing and nobody ever stopped the Kansas Comet.
Until something did.
“Simply a once-in-a-generation talent,” historian Chris Willis of NFL Films said.
What Sayers left behind wasn’t a raft of unreachable records or gaudy numbers. Granted, in his five years of greatness (1965-69) he was named All-Pro all five years – twice more than any other running back – and he rushed for more yards (400 more) than anyone during that time. He compiled 1,800 more all-purpose yards, too.
But that’s not what we remember. We remember is what we witnessed. And what we witnessed lives on forever in our mind’s eye.
“Gale Sayers,” George Allen said, “is the most exciting running back and long-gain back I ever saw. He wasn’t big. But he could run inside and outside with authority. He was the quickest to the hole ever, and if there wasn’t a hole he would slide until he found an opening.”
That’s one way of describing him. Sayers had another.
“Give me 18 inches of daylight,” he once said. “That’s all I need.”
When I asked historians to stack Sayers against other Hall-of-Fame running backs, they generally ranked him behind others like Jim Brown, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Emmitt Smith and O.J. Simpson. But that’s because they factored in longevity, the one area – the only area – where Sayers came up short.
Yet it is a testimony to the greatness of Gale Sayers that when he became eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 he did not come up short. He was elected on the first ballot. Voters didn’t care that his pro career was truncated. What they cared about was what they’d seen in that career.
And what they’d seen they never forgot: A talent like none other.