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PART III: The Icon
August 23, 2010
Gale Sayers's sheer, blinding talent made him the standard for all open-field runners since—but when he hobbled into history after a brutally shortened career, football was left to wonder what might have been
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August 23, 2010

Part Iii: The Icon

Gale Sayers's sheer, blinding talent made him the standard for all open-field runners since—but when he hobbled into history after a brutally shortened career, football was left to wonder what might have been

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Sayers, who played at 6 feet, 200 pounds, has spent 45 years trying to explain his elusiveness, always landing on the same position. "It was a gift," he says. "And trust me, it was easy. It was so easy, I can't even explain it."

Just as easily, it was gone. On Nov. 10, 1968, in the 51st game of his career, Sayers took a pitch left from quarterback Virgil Carter and ran up on the outside shoulder of pulling tackle Randy Jackson. Alexander knifed past Jackson and drove his left shoulder into Sayers's right knee. To this day Sayers is uncertain about precisely what damage was done, except that it was extensive. The morning after the injury, the Chicago Tribune reported, "Dr. Theodore Fox, who performed the operation, described the injury as a total rupture of all ligaments on the inside of the knee and torn cartilage."

Klaassen, who has seen records of Sayers's right knee, suspects that at least the ACL, MCL and meniscus were torn.

In 1968, options for repairing such an explosive injury were minimal. "In those days our ability to fix an ACL, MCL, PCL was in the dark ages," says Dr. James Andrews, who began operating on knees in '69 but never worked on Sayers. "We didn't know how to fix the ACL, so we left it alone and operated on the peripheral tendons to make up for the ACL. That didn't work. With the cartilage, we would do a total menisectomy, just take it all out. That was a mistake too."

All of this makes Sayers's 1969 season remarkable. He was in the Bears' starting backfield on Sept. 21, 10 months after a catastrophic knee injury that couldn't be properly repaired. He carried 236 times that year for a league-high 1,032 yards on a team that went 1--13. Sayers says with great pride, "I was the same player; I did all the same things," but the film disagrees. He appears to have lost much of his darting, ethereal quickness, and instead frequently lowers his head and burrows for extra yards.

"Have you ever hunted?" asks former Bears linebacker Doug Buffone, who played with Sayers from 1966 to '71. "Gale looked like a pheasant in a clearing, where he just stops and then starts over again to make his cut. All the quickness was gone. He took some huge shots that year. It was tough to watch."

It was also the last vestige of what Sayers had been. On Aug. 29, 1970, in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Sayers felt pain in his left knee. The good knee. It worsened in the season opener against the Giants, and Sayers didn't play again until Oct. 11 against the Vikings. In that game he carried six times for nine yards, and when 245-pound defensive tackle Alan Page recovered a fumble in the Bears backfield, Sayers couldn't catch him as Page rumbled 65 yards for the touchdown. Three days later Sayers had surgery on the left knee, probably to "fold" up either the MCL or the PCL. "Another method that was not very effective," says Andrews. "We were in the infantile stages of surgery to repair [ligament] damage."

There were to be two more surgeries on the left knee in the next two years. In '71 Sayers played a single home game against New Orleans and one road game at San Francisco, gaining a total of 38 yards. In '72 he dressed for the final preseason game on Sept. 9 at Busch Memorial Stadium in St. Louis, carried three times for a total of five yards and fumbled twice. "He was running on one leg," says Butkus. "It was tragic." Says Buffone, "I was just watching from the sideline, thinking, Quit, Gale. Just quit. You don't need to do this."

At halftime Sayers found Bears coach Abe Gibron in the locker room and told him, "Abe, I'm through. Every time I run, it hurts." Thirty-eight years later, this is how Sayers views that night: "I wasn't the same Gale Sayers anymore. I felt different. You asked me how I did it in those first four years. I said God gave me a gift. That night in St. Louis he took it away. God said, 'Gale, it's time to do something else.'"

Now Sayers sits in a booth at a restaurant near his office. In many ways he is the same person who came to the Bears in the summer of 1965: still shy and given to occasional stuttering, but more effusive as he becomes comfortable with any situation. The restaurant's manager drops a business card on the table and says, "If there's anything we can do for you, Mr. Sayers, just let me know." In some ways, it will always be 1965.

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