Could Gale Sayers have been the greatest ever? I state my case for yes

If knee injuries had not cut down the rising star of the Kansas Comet he just may have become the greatest running back in the history of the NFL. Now before you start trying to laugh me out of town please allow me to show you my reasoning for such a bold statement.

But first let’s start with some background on the life of my all-time favorite player. He was born Gale Eugene Sayers in Wichita, Kansas on May 30, 1943. The middle child of three sons to Roger and Bernice Sayers. He owes his unique first name (for a male anyway) to his mother who wanted a girl and was set on naming her Gail. When she got another son she simply changed the spelling.

Sayers played his high school football at Omaha Central high school in Omaha, Nebraska where he also excelled at track and field. In his senior year Gale was named to both the all-Midwestern and all-American high school football teams.

After high school he decided on a college close to home and wound up at the University of Kansas to play for the Jayhawks. Before he left for school however he became engaged to his high school sweetheart Linda McNeil. Although they would eventually divorce the two were married for over a decade and had three children.

After an extremely successful college career Sayers was chosen 4th overall in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft by the Bears. And this is where I begin my case for Gale Sayers as the greatest running back in history, barring those dreadful knee injuries of course.

In his 1st year in the league all Sayers did was rush for 867 yards on only 166 carries, a 5.2 yard average. Catch 29 balls for 507 yards, an astonishing 17.5 yard average per reception. Return 16 punts for 238 yards, and 21 kickoffs for 660 yards. That’s a 31.4 yard kickoff return average if your keeping track at home.

These amazing stats pale though in comparison to the most important stat in football. Points. Remember this was all done in his rookie year. In 1965, Sayers scored an NFL record 22 touchdowns. 14 rushing, 6 receiving, 1 punt return, and 1 kickoff return. Oh, and just for fun he threw a touchdown pass too. Not bad for starters. In one game on December 12 he scored a record 6 touchdowns in the following manners: An 80 yard screen pass, an 85 yard punt return, and four runs totaling 79 yards. For that one game alone he recorded a record 336 total yards.

After his rookie year coach George Halas decided Gale was too valuable to return punts but continued to let him return kickoffs. And Sayers would not let him down. In the next two years he would rush for over 2000 yards on 415 carries and return 39 kickoffs for 1321 yards, averaging an NFL record 37.7 yards per kick return in 1967. He also added to his touchdown total by scoring 18 more from scrimmage and 6 on returns.

So in his first 3 years in the league he averaged over 5.1 yards per carry, scored 46 touchdowns and averaged over 33 yards per kick return. Believe me those are very gaudy numbers. Especially for someone who was only 24 years old. He had also been named Rookie of the Year, and was all-pro all three years.

1968 was shaping up as Sayers’ best. In eight games he gained 824 yards on only 127 carries. An average of almost 6.5 yards per carry. Again I say, almost six and a half yards per carry. But then the unthinkable happened.

In the ninth week of 1968, in a game against the 49ers, Kermit Alexander hit Gale with a low tackle and completely shattered his knee. All of the ligaments in his leg were torn. Doctors said a comeback was extremely unlikely if not impossible.

Throughout the off season Gale pushed himself to get ready for 1969. And in the fall of ’69 his efforts  would be rewarded. Sayers went on to gain over 1000 yards and was named the comeback player of the year as well as winning the George S. Halas trophy for most courageous player.

While accepting this award Gale made a speech that included these now famous words; ” You flatter me by giving me this trophy, but I tell you here and now Brian Piccolo is the man who deserves the George S. Halas award. It is mine tonight, Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo. And I would like all of you to love him too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.” Piccolo died of cancer the following June.

In a preseason game in 1970 Sayers once again tore ligaments in his knee, effectively ending his career. In 1977 he became the youngest player, at 34 years old, to be inducted into the Hall of Fame. After playing in only 68 games. A record that still stands.

Epilogue: After Sayers retired he began a successful business career in the Chicago area. He remarried in 1973 to Ardythe Bullard and had three more children. He and Ardythe are now prominent philanthropists in the region, devoting most of their efforts toward under privileged children. In 1999 he was inducted into the Chicago area Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame and currently heads a computer supply company catering to fortune 1000 companies.

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