Sayers' feet went so far last season that he was Rookie of the Year in the NFL almost by acclamation. When he was not ripping out big gains from scrimmage he was making dazzling kick returns. His day of days was December 12 in Chicago, when he followed those golden feet to six touchdowns in the Bears' 61-20 victory over San Francisco. That performance matched the single-game record for touchdowns held by Ernie Nevers (1929) and Dub Jones (1951). It began with a little screen pass from Bukich that Sayers carried 80 yards farther, romped on with runs of 1, 7, 21 and 50 yards and concluded with a socko 85-yard punt return in the fourth quarter.
Nearly every week brought a phenomenal play. Early in October it was an 80-yard carry with a short flare pass against the Rams. The following week Sayers rambled 96 yards against the Vikings on a kickoff return. There was a 62-yard punt runback in the second Packer game as the Bears avenged their defeat in the first game. There was a nifty 61-yard tear around left end against Baltimore. Ultimately Sayers finished second only to Jim Brown in rushing, with 867 yards, piled up 660 yards on kickoff returns and 238 yards on punt returns and gained another 507 as a pass receiver.
The Chicago running game would be even more impressive if young Andy Livingston, a 234-pound fullback from Phoenix Junior College, had not suffered a leg injury last month. Livingston, a sleeper in the Bear camp three years ago, was regarded as sort of a larger Sayers. He has more speed for a short distance, but he is not as agile as Sayers, who, now that Jim Brown has retired, may be the top running back in football.
Livingston will not be back this season, but even so, the Bears will run well enough. Ronnie Bull, Joe Marconi and Jon Arnett are all experienced and capable. Charlie Bivins, another veteran running back, has been shifted out to tight end behind Ditka, giving the Bears needed depth at that position. Opening the way for the running backs and providing protection for Bukich is that tremendous offensive line, which has been well coached by Abe Gibron.
"They adjust to new situations very quickly," says Bukich admiringly. "And Abe is one of the best I ever saw at staying ahead of the defenses. He picks up changes in defensive tactics immediately, and he has taught the offensive line to do the same thing. Let's face it, every quarterback in the league needs help. When I hand the ball off, my back is to the line, I don't know what's going on behind me. My play selections depend a good deal on what my linemen and the other offensive players tell me about the defense. They have to read the tricks and report, and they have to be right."
To go with this formidable offense, the Bears have a defense that is somewhat younger than the grudging 1963 team but potentially as good. Like that one, this defense is built around a murderous middle linebacker. George, who held up the middle in 1963, has moved on to the Rams; now, of course, Butkus is in the middle. Butkus is a superstar of the magnitude of a Sayers, a Jim Brown, a Ray Nitschke. He has exceptionally quick reactions which allow him to make a mistake and recover in time to correct it, the speed to hurt receivers on pass defense and immense power. In a game last year Butkus destroyed the Los Angeles offense almost singlehanded.
Joe Fortunato is a veteran corner linebacker who calls defensive signals. At the other corner the Bears have had Larry Morris for a long time. Now Morris has retired. Jim Purnell, in his third season, seems a good replacement, but the Bears are not deep in linebackers and a key injury here could be damaging. The defensive line is both good and deep. Dick Evey, Doug Atkins, Bob Kilcullen and Ed O'Bradovich are big and experienced and help is available from a 285-pound rookie from Grambling, Frank Cornish. The deep defenders are exceptional. Bennie McRae, Richie Petitbon, Roosevelt Taylor and Dave Whit-sell are alumni of the 1963 championship team and have improved with age.
Says one Bear coach, reflecting the mood of the team: "I think we probably have the best 22 players in the league." He may be right, but the championship is usually won by the team with the best 40 players, and that team is Green Bay. Baltimore, too, seems to have greater depth than Chicago. If the Bears are lucky and can avoid key injuries, they certainly are talented enough to win the championship. If they have the normal number of injuries, a third-place finish is likely.
So much depends upon Bukich. He is not a demonstrative man. Colorful is not an adjective you would apply to him. But in him, slowly and painstakingly absorbed during the years of exile, is the stuff of a champion. Bukich is the son of a St. Louis crane operator, and among his most vivid memories is that of a visit to the steel mill where his father worked, dipping molten metal and pouring it with thunderous delicacy into a series of molds. "I could," he says, "barely stand the heat."
The heat is on as he begins his 12th season as a pro, but don't worry about Rudy; just sit back and watch him pour.