This is a season in which the National Football League has a crop of startlingly good rookies, but there is now no argument about who will be the Rookie of the Year. That man is Gale Sayers, the marvelously exciting running back of the Chicago Bears. He clinched his case for the rookie award last Sunday in Yankee Stadium as the Bears defeated the Giants 35-14 in a game that also featured two of his strongest first-year rivals: his teammate, Linebacker Dick Butkus, and New York's Fullback Tucker Frederickson.
Enjoying an extravagant day even for a Gale Sayers, the Bear halfback ran 45 yards for one Chicago touchdown and 15 yards for another and threw a southpaw touchdown pass. It did not matter a great deal that the passing touchdown was nullified by a penalty, since Sayers gained 113 yards on 13 carries. That was a little more than twice as many yards as were earned by the Giant team. Sayers also returned two kickoffs for 41 yards and, as an extra fillip, caught two passes for 24 more.
Frederickson, the big Giant fullback, was eclipsed, although he played very well. And fairness requires it to be noted that he played with a sore hamstring muscle and that the young Giant team did not often afford him the luxury of route-clearing blocks.
Butkus, the large, agile and tough middle linebacker, intercepted a pass, recovered a fumble and made himself obnoxious to Giant ballcarriers all afternoon. His was, in its less spectacular way, almost as tremendous a performance as Sayers'.
December 6, 1965
But the undisputed star of the day was Sayers, a small (for a pro running back), quiet, attentive young man from Omaha who graduated to the Bears from the University of Kansas. While he was at Kansas, Sayers was courted assiduously by the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. "From my junior year on," says Sayers, "they would invite me to see their games. And then they drafted me first and made me a real good offer." Sayers was also the first draft choice of the Bears, whose counteroffer he usually describes as "$4.95 and a carton of Cokes."
Exactly how much more George Halas, who owns the Bears, paid for the Jayhawk flash has not been disclosed, but his gross income for the next three years is probably in the neighborhood of $200,000.
"He is worth every cent he cost," says Halas. "I pay him more than the entire payroll for a season in the old days. Of course, the league maximum then was $100 a game, and we had 18 players for a 10-game season."
Halas, not a fast man with a compliment, compares Sayers to Chicago's two previous running heroes, George McAfee and Red Grange. "McAfee was a quick, darting type of back," George says. "Grange wasn't so quick, but he had a fine ability to change direction and he was the master of the limp leg—giving a tackier a leg and taking it away when he made his move."
Sayers has a style all his own. "He has wonderful speed," Halas says, "and he has tremendous acceleration and a variety of gears. He can lull you into thinking he is going at top speed, and then turn up another notch and be gone before you know it."
Sayers demonstrated this ability perfectly on his first touchdown run against the Giants. During the first quarter he had started wide to his left and had suddenly stopped and lofted a long, wobbly pass to Flanker Back Dick Gordon, another Bear rookie. Gordon caught the ball some 10 yards behind the befuddled Giant defense and scored a touchdown, but the play was called back because of a Bear holding penalty.
Now it was the second quarter, and again Sayers swung wide to his left, running with the long, low stride that makes his speed appear to be effortless. As he started to turn upfield he feinted another left-handed pass, and a Giant linebacker froze momentarily, which was long enough for big Mike Ditka, the Bear tight end, to obliterate him. Sayers brought the ball down, accelerated and zipped past a cluster of Giant defenders with the smooth speed of a hunting leopard.
"When he does things like that, we look at each other on the sideline and shake our heads," Halas says. "He is a great instinctive runner. We haven't tried to teach him anything about running."
Sayers himself cannot explain his ability. "I have no idea what I do," he says. "I hear people talk about dead leg, shake, change of pace and all that, but I do things without thinking about them. Like on the long run, when I faked the pass. That is not part of the play. The play was called purely as a run, but for some reason I faked the pass and it worked out pretty well.
"I know I've still got a lot to learn, and I'm working on it. I've improved my blocking some, but I'm not working real well with the blockers ahead of me on runs. I don't think I have approached my peak. I mean, once I learn how to set up the blocks and how to mesh my speed with my blockers I'll be better. I'm working hard on that."
As a receiver Sayers is much better than average, and this is a skill he developed during the summer before he reported to the Bears. "I guess everybody knows we did not throw the ball much at Kansas," he says. "Under Jack Mitchell we were a running team. I had offers from 75 to 100 colleges when I got out of high school. All the Big Eight, all the Big Ten, Notre Dame, UCLA-schools like that. I took Kansas because I liked Coach Mitchell, and it was close to home. I made the right choice. He developed me. He taught me the refinements of running. He was a great coach and a fine human being, and we hit it off. But we didn't pass much." On his own, Sayers spent tedious but rewarding hours during the summer catching passes. "I started with good hands," he says. "But I had to get the feel of it. Now I think I can catch anything they want to throw me."
In the Bear dressing room after the game Sayers was an impressive sight. Although he weighs only 200 pounds, his thighs look as big and strong as Jim Brown's, and he has heavily muscled arms and shoulders. His waist is negligible, and he has the bunched, powerful buttocks of all strong runners. "I was pretty little when I started high school at Omaha Central," he said. "I weighed 110 pounds as a freshman. Then, in the summer between my freshman and sophomore years, I gained 50 pounds. I'm not quite sure why, except I spent all summer cutting lawns, and I guess pushing a lawnmower built me up. And I guess I was at the age to mature and grow."
At Omaha High he was a spectacular back and a good hurdler. His older brother, Roger, was a 9.4 sprinter. Gale has no idea how fast he is; he has never been timed in a sprint. A younger brother, who is a freshman football player at the University of Omaha, is bigger than Gale and probably is already noted in every scouting dossier in both pro leagues.
Gale was an All-America two years in a row at Kansas, but he got off to a so-so start with the Bears after spending three weeks in the College All-Star training camp. He did not play in the game. Most of the players who were at that camp have said since that there was a personality clash between Sayers and Coach Otto Graham, but Sayers will not comment on that. "I was hurt," he says quietly. "That's all."
At any rate, Sayers was not acclimated in the Bears' opening game against San Francisco (won by the 49ers), and he was in for only a few plays the next week against Los Angeles. The Bears lost that game, too. However, Sayers started against Green Bay the following week and, significantly, it was in the second half of that game that Chicago caught fire, although the result on the scoreboard was another defeat. Since then, the Bears have won seven of eight games, and Sayers has contributed strongly to each victory.
His two touchdowns last Sunday in New York brought his total for the year to 14, a new league record for rookies, with three games still to be played. The old record was not set by Jim Brown, incidentally, but by a pass receiver, End Bill Howton, in 1952.
Sayers is married, lives in Chicago and spends a lot of time listening to hi-fi music, but the only real passion of his life is football. "I get my kicks running with the ball," Sayers says. "I would play any position Mr. Halas wanted me to. Football is fun for me, and pro football is more fun than college football because you don't have to spend all that time studying other things. I mean, professional football is my career. I haven't even thought about what I want to do when I get through. Right now I'm just concentrating on doing as well as I can in my profession."
Someone asked him what he thought of Frederickson, who, along with Ken Willard of San Francisco, Dallas' Bob Hayes, and Butkus, is Sayers' strongest competition for Rookie of the Year.
"He impressed me at the All-Star camp," Sayers said ungrudgingly. "He's so compact you don't realize he weighs 225 pounds. And he hits hard, man, very hard. He also cuts better than any big man I ever saw. He is a real good one."
He is all of that, and the Giant fans, although disappointed by his performance Sunday as measured against Sayers' superperformance, knew that Frederickson would give them pleasure on other afternoons to come. He was the Giants' first draft choice as "the best athlete" of his collegiate year—the heavy, hard-running star of a fine Auburn team—and when the season opened it was clear that he was the big back New York had done without for too many years.
He was not merely a hustler who could rip into a good St. Louis team and send it into a tailspin (from which it never really recovered), as he did on October 31. He was also blond and good-looking and Deep South courteous. To Madison Avenue types who had been depressed by the decline and departure of Y. A. Tittle, he was the biggest thing since the sixpack.
But up at the Stadium, Sayers was wasting little energy pondering Frederickson or any other competitor. "All I think about, man," he said, "is winning, just winning."