SEPTEMBERS 12, 1966
Gale Sayers was more Houdini than halfback. Whenever it appeared he was trapped by a cluster of defenders, Sayers invariably wriggled out of their reach and escaped, leaving a trail of disbelieving players and fans. It's no wonder that Chicago Bears teammates referred to him as Magic, long before Earvin Johnson became synonymous with the moniker.
More than 30 years later, as founder and chairman of the Sayers Group, LLC, a Mount Prospect, Ill.-based company that provides technology solutions and posted $250 million in revenues in 2001, Sayers, 59, wishes he could magically stimulate the flat tech economy—he had to lay off 75 of his 300 employees last year. "Tech's been hurt," says Sayers, who was an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year in 1999, "but we're starting to see some light."
On the advice of fellow running back Jon Arnett, Sayers got interested in business and began working for PaineWebber in Chicago during his second season with the Bears, in 1966. "We didn't practice on Mondays, so I'd go to the office," says Sayers. "On Fridays we'd have light practice, so I'd go to work afterward. [Coach George] Halas didn't care. He knew I'd be ready to play on Sunday." Following the 1967 season Sayers studied for and passed the stockbroker's exam, launching a five-year dual career as a broker-running back.
As a rookie Sayers gained 2,272 total yards (rushing, receiving, kickoff and punt returns), and he led the league in rushing during his second year. But in the ninth week of the 1968 season, while carrying the ball on a sweep, he tore ligaments in his right knee. After surgery Sayers came back in '69 to again lead the NFL in rushing. The following year was devastating: His backup and friend, Brian Piccolo, died of cancer, and Sayers suffered serious ligament damage in his left knee. His second comeback failed, and he retired on the eve of the '72 season. Sayers's brilliant career lasted only 68 games.
Interested in athletic administration, Sayers returned to his alma mater, Kansas, and completed work on his bachelor's degree in physical education, and then earned a master's in educational administration. In 1976 he became the athletic director at Southern Illinois; after five years he decided to seek an NFL front-office job, but no team had an opening. He moved back to the Chicago area, where he started his technology solutions company in 1984. "Adversity has helped me grow," says Sayers. "If I had played longer in the NFL, things may have turned out differently."