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The knee lasted nearly 37 years after its magic was gone. That's what Gale Sayers's teammates called him: Magic. Because of the things he did on a football field, things that they had never seen before (and which no one has seen since), and for which they could deduce no worldly explanation. He went out for a jog one day in the spring of 2009, and his left knee hurt just a little bit more than usual. Or maybe he had just grown weary of the pain. For a long time doctors had been telling him that this day would come, although none of them imagined it would take so long. Thirty-seven years, Sayers thought. This knee owes me nothing.
So on the morning of April 27, 2009, Sayers lay on an operating table in Elkhart, Ind., where at age 65 he would receive an artificial knee. Orthopedic surgeon Mark Klaassen stood over Sayers, and this is what he saw: three long scars, one running down the front of the knee, another on the inside and a third on the outside, curling around to the back. These were from decades-old open surgeries, "dissections," as Klaassen calls them. "The multiple scars made the surgery technically a little more involved," he says. "Because you don't want the skin to die."
Inside the knee Klaassen found carnage. Sayers's anterior cruciate ligament was gone; the posterior cruciate ligament was stretched and frayed. There was evidence that the medial collateral ligament had been sewn or stapled at some point in an effort to create stability (a practice common at one time but later found to be ineffective). A half-inch wedge of his tibia had been sawed off in an osteotomy, a surgical procedure designed to redistribute weight away from an arthritic surface. Almost no cartilage remained, and as a result, the joint was filled with dust and fragments from bones rubbing together for many years.
It was not the worst knee Klaassen had ever seen. But it was by far the worst on which the owner had been actively exercising. "This thing was utterly shot," says Klaassen. "And Gale had been jogging on this knee. All I could think was, Wow, that's a lot of pain tolerance. This is a unique individual here. Very determined. Very stoic."
Even more remarkable, the knee in question was not the knee that first derailed Sayers's career, when he was famously hit by a diving Kermit Alexander of the 49ers at Wrigley Field in November 1968. That was the right knee, and Klaassen says that one is in rough shape too. But the left, first injured in 1970, had become much worse.
Klaassen replaced the damaged pieces of Sayers's left knee with a two-pound, state-of-the-art prosthesis made of polyethylene, titanium and a cobalt-chrome alloy. The surgery took 60 minutes, after which Klaassen disposed of the old bone and tissue. Sayers stayed one night and then went home to Chicago. "It was time to get it replaced," he says, "so I got it replaced."
Sayers played football more than four decades ago. His career has passed into the realm of grainy film mythology, and within that mythology certain assumptions have taken root. Such as this one: He was uniquely great. In a 68-game career from 1965 to '71 (just 51 games in 3½ years before his first major knee injury), Sayers played running back like no other man in pads, a blinding talent who could make defenders miss him in a phone booth or outrun them in the open field. That assumption is true. "There really has never been anybody else like him, even to this day," says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who as a defensive back for the Lions played against Sayers 10 times and has been a coach in the NFL for 37 seasons.
"He was the best runner with a football under his arm I've ever seen," says Mike Ditka, who played with Sayers in 1965 and '66 and, notably, later coached Walter Payton.
Here's another assumption: The injuries that blunted Sayers's career—Alexander's hit in the ninth game of Sayers's fourth season, and a stretched left-knee ligament in an exhibition game before his sixth season, an injury that deteriorated with time—left him unfulfilled. That assumption is false. His battered knees ended his football career and started a rich second life, and he offers up two statements, spoken countless times since 1972, to describe this transition: As I prepared to play, I prepared to quit. I walked away, and I never looked back.
Now 67, Sayers is the chairman and CEO of Sayers40 Inc., a $100 million suburban Chicago company that supplies information-technology services to more than 400 clients, including several in the FORTUNE 500. It's the latest version of a business Sayers started with a partner in 1984 after spending a decade in college athletic administration.