‘Sunday Morning Special Teams’ is a weekly column divided by yours truly, Greg Forbes. It’s aims are to provide in-depth analysis of all special teams play, career retrospectives, player interviews and knowledge on the latest in the world of the unit itself.
In what many consider to have been a short but sweet NFL career, Gale Sayers brought speed, agility, skill and tenacity to the league that had yet to be witnessed prior to his introduction in the mid-1960’s.
His contributions to the game earned him legendary status in the city of Chicago, the place where he rose to prominence as one of the greatest Bears in the team’s history.
Whilst Sayers’ career may been cut short by a series of tentative knee injuries, his seven-year tenure in the big leagues allowed him to produce at an incredible level, which saw him break several records on his way to becoming the youngest player to ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the age of 34.
So, without further ado, it’s time to investigate the career of one of football’s greats.
Family, Football, Fun
Some things in life are meant to be, almost like fate made it that way. That sentiment can be shared in the case of Sayers, who starred as a running back for the University of Kansas, which was the state of his birth.
Born on May 30, 1943, Sayers grew up in Omaha, Nebraska, with his parents and his two brothers, despite being born in Wichita, Kansas. His brothers were both somewhat equally talented in sports, with his older brother, Roger, prevailing as a distinguished collegiate sporting athlete. As for Ron, his younger brother, he also played the running back position for the San Diego Chargers at one point in time but this only lasted one season in the 1969 campaign.
Though Sayers had initially intended to pursue his talents at the University of Iowa, he reconsidered after the Hawkeyes’ head coach Jerry Burns elected to not organise a private meeting with Gale.
This lack of commitment from Iowa would be remembered forever, as Sayers would go on to produce one of the most productive collegiate careers of his generation as a Jayhawk.
The ‘Kansas Comet’
In his three-year Jayhawk career, Sayers accumulated a total of 4,020 all purpose yards, starring as both running back and return specialist.
In 1962, his sophomore year, but first as part of the varsity team, Sayers absolutely dominated the NCAA as a whole. Over the course of 10 games, he amassed 1125 yards and 7 touchdowns on just 158 rushing attempts. This produced an average of 7.2 yards per carry for the stud, which lead the league in that campaign. In spite of the fact that the ’62 season proved to be Sayers’ best at the collegiate level, he was not awarded any postseason awards aside from a nomination to the All-Big-Eight side, unbelievably.
The following season was a completely different matter however. Although he had less carries (132), he still compiled 917 rushing yards and 7 TD’s. In addition, his influence in the passing department was increased, as he racked up 155 yards and 1 touchdown on just 11 receptions. This production served as an average of 14.1 yards per catch, which must’ve played a part in his nomination as a Consensus All-American. He once again was named to the All-Big-Eight team also.
Finally, in his Junior footballing season, but true Senior year in Kansas, Sayers exited having notched 633 yards and 4 touchdowns on 122 rushing attempts – his worst accumulation of statistics at the college level. Oppositely, he produced his best record in the receiving game, as he collected 182 yards on just 17 catches. As a return specialist, he returned 15 punts for 138 yards and 7 kickoffs for 193 yards. For his efforts, Sayers was named a Consensus All-American and an All-Big-Eight selection for the second year in a row.
Sayers’ enthralling collegiate career, which included three nominations to the All-Conference Team and two Consensus All-American honours, solidified his status as the unanimous selection as the best halfback up for grabs ahead of the 1965 NFL/AFL Draft. But who would make their intentions known and pluck him off the board? More importantly, who would he elect to play for?
Rookie Of The Century
Despite the fact that the Kansas City Chiefs selected Sayers fifth overall in the AFL Draft, he elected to star for the Chicago Bears who took him fourth overall in the NFL Draft instead.
That decision proved to be a wise one because of the successes he created, starting from his rookie year. It was in that 1965 season that Sayers truly took the world by storm as he set an NFL-record of 22 touchdowns in a single season; scoring 14 rushing TD’s, 6 receiving, 1 punt and 1 kick return TD. Aside from the variation in the ways he scored his touchdowns, Sayers’s impact was felt on a multitude of levels. In the run game for example, he amassed 867 yards on just 166 rushing attempts, which produced an average of 5.2 yards per game. Furthermore, he boasted an average of 17.5 yards per reception after accumulating 507 yards on just 29 catches. Last but not least, the ‘Kansas Comet’ also averaged a league-leading 31.4 yards per kick return.
That season also included the game within which Sayers matched the record for single-game touchdowns, after he notched an incredible tally of 6 touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers. That day, he finished the game with 113 rushing yards, 89 receiving and 134 in punt return yardage to cap off a truly breathtaking display.
For his monumental efforts in that season, he was nominated to the Pro Bowl and was named a First-Team All-Pro. Most impressively however, many believe Sayers’ ’65 campaign was the best rookie year of all-time. This is an opinion shared by Hall of Fame sportswriter Ray Didinger who said, “I think Sayers’ rookie year is the greatest of any player”, on the NFL’s Top 10 list of greatest rookie seasons, on which Sayers placed fourth.
A Hall of Fame Career
Sayers continued his excellent form in the following season as he claimed the 1966 rushing title for registering 1231 yards and 8 touchdowns on just 229 carries. On top of that, he improved his record as a return specialist by recording 718 kick return yards and added 2 KR touchdowns to his résumé for the season too. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Sayers added another Pro Bowl and an All-Pro nomination to his collection.
In the ensuing two seasons he began to share the load with several halfbacks, including his late best friend Brian Piccalo, with whom he shared a fantastic relationship with. Their partnership may have limited Sayers’ production ever so slightly, but it didn’t effect his accumulation of honours as he made a return to the Pro Bowl in 1967, and was nominated an All-Pro in both ‘67 and ‘68.
Unfortunately however, Sayers suffered a knee injury which sidelined him for the second half of the 1968 season, and served as his first real injury scare in the big leagues.
He returned better than ever in the following campaign, as he racked up 1,032 rushing yards (his second career-rushing title) and 8 touchdowns. Furthermore, that yardage helped him move into second all-time for rushing yards in Bear history. Aside from that, he averaged 8.6 yards per reception out of the backfield, whilst it appeared his body hadn’t suffered dramatically from the injury suffered a season ago. This was reflected in his final nomination as an All-Pro, as well as a trip to the Pro Bowl. Most importantly however, Sayers was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year for the season.
The 1970 preseason saw Sayers’ knee suffer bruises to the bone. That said, he aimed to persevere through the pain which ultimately produced catastrophic results as he would feature in just two games in the following two campaigns. As a result, he hung up his cleats in the preseason of the 1972 campaign, closing the book on his seven-year NFL career.
Outside Of The Statistics
Still to this day many NFL fanatics ponder what Sayers’ career might’ve looked like had he escaped injury. Whilst we may never know the answer to that question, one can only believe that he would rank among the all-time greats statistically.
That said, his impact on the game of football was more than just about statistics. His fluidity in motion made him almost untouchable in the open field, which also lead to his famous quote, “Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.”
One of the most joyous things about Sayers’ brilliance was witnessing him force tacklers into utter embarrassment. He boasted blistering pace, having recorded a 100-yard dash time of 9.7s, but more importantly his agility carried him past opposing defenders like he was floating on air. When you rewatch tape of his, you can see how he can literally turn on a dime with complete control as if he was simply running in a straight line.
Simply put, Sayers was an unconventional talent, who’s career may have been short, but is remembered as arguably the best in Chicago Bear history.
If this article didn’t depict exactly why Sayers was such a fantastic player, then let the Pro Football Hall of Fame exclaim it best as in 1977 he was enshrined in Canton, Ohio, making him the youngest player to ever receive that honour, and in his first year of eligibility no less.
Credits: sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, YouTube.com, profootballhof.com, The Associated Press (image) & wikipedia.com.