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And at an age when many former athletes are long retired, the CEO position is just one of Sayers's many roles. Since last August, he has been raising funds for a football stadium expansion at his alma mater, Kansas. Sayers and his second wife, Ardythe, also founded The Gale Sayers Center, an after-school facility in Chicago for children ages eight to 12, and actively support The Cradle, an Evanston, Ill.--based adoption agency through which Sayers and his first wife, Linda, adopted their now 40-year-old son, Scott. (Sayers has three children; Ardythe has four. Between them, the couple has 12 grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren).
In Sayers's 1970 autobiography, I Am Third, he detailed his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer that year. That became the inspiration for the movie Brian's Song, a cultural landmark that lives on today. The Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund has raised more than $8 million in the four decades since Piccolo's death. "The relationship between Gale and Brian is still going on," says Piccolo's widow, Joy Piccolo O'Connell. "That's the beautiful part."
Sayers, meanwhile, says that if 10 people approach him in a given day, more will mention the movie than his football career. "That's fine," says Sayers. "I'll never, ever forget Brian. That part of my life will be with me forever." Pressed, he'll say he wishes Billy Dee Williams had looked "more like a football player," and didn't stammer quite so much in the climactic "I love Brian Piccolo speech" because, says Sayers, "I gave a hell of a speech that night."
In fact Sayers speaks frequently in public, and occasionally, as in May, he will be asked about the plight of the modern-day Bears, and he will speak his mind and wind up in a public spitting match with Brian Urlacher. "Everybody knows the Bears aren't going to the Super Bowl," says Sayers. "I just said it."
Sayers's football career is legendary not only because it ended prematurely, but also because so little of it can be witnessed today. Fans under 40 didn't see him play in person or live on television; they would know Sayers mostly by the handful of clips recycled on the NFL Network and ESPN and periodically snagged and posted on YouTube. Even older witnesses recall only pieces. "I remember the highlights," says Titans coach Jeff Fisher, 52, who played for the Bears in the '80s. "Just the highlights. But those were amazing runs." Redskins coach Mike Shanahan, 57, who grew up in the Chicago area, says, "I'd have to go back and study all his carries, but those cutbacks, like defenders were trying to catch smoke in the air—you don't see players like that nowadays."
The tiny film sample adds to the mystique, but also to the mystery. This could be why journalists, fans and players seem so comfortable anointing various players as "the next Gale Sayers," a list that includes but is not limited to Reggie Bush, Barry Sanders, Marshall Faulk, Willis McGahee, Chris Johnson, Walter Payton, Devin Hester, Curtis Enis, Ben Gay, Wendell Davis and Denzel Washington. (O.K., Denzel said that about himself and only that he once wanted to be the next Sayers.)
Sayers scored a still-standing NFL rookie-record 22 touchdowns in 1965, including six in a single game against the 49ers on Dec. 12 at Wrigley Field. Over the course of his career he averaged five yards per carry, 11.7 yards per reception and 30.56 yards per kickoff return—still the highest in NFL history. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility, at age 34. He is still the youngest player to be enshrined in Canton.
Yet the numbers alone are embarrassingly insufficient to portray Sayers's greatness. For that, you need visual evidence, and so a small monitor is balanced on a countertop in a library at NFL Films in Mount Laurel, N.J. Because Sayers played in the film era, much of his career is missing (the film having been chopped up over the years to make various television shows), but entire games do exist, and his work is uniformly breathtaking.
In 1965 there is an easy run to the flag against the Packers, leaving Hall of Fame defensive backs Herb Adderly and Willie Wood laughably out of position. In the six-touchdown game against the 49ers he glides over a muddy field as if it's artificial turf. He runs 85 yards with a punt, at one point cutting back so sharply that he seems to run backward. "He had this ability to go full speed, cut and then go full speed again right away," says Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, who came into the league with Sayers in '65. "I saw it every day in practice. We played live, and you could never get a clean shot on Gale. Never."
In '66 he takes a kickoff back 93 yards against the Rams, making half a dozen little moves as he approaches the wedge, freezing defenders and opening a giant hole that he attacks with blazing speed. In '67 he drops Lions Hall of Famer Lem Barney with a dead-leg cutback on a 63-yard run from scrimmage. "He had this unusual gait," says LeBeau. "His legs were long for his body, and he would glide and then wait, and when you moved, he was gone. And he always had another gear. He would be even better today, with spread offenses and hash marks in the middle of the field. Once that guy got in the open field, you were going to have a tough time getting him down."