With a questioning gaze, passers-by stop and whisper, “Who is that?”
The man they’re referring to is an older man in his mid-50s, sporting a pair of glasses and signing autographs, mostly on Chicago Bears memorabilia. The man in question is NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who stopped by the University Mall for a sports card show Saturday.
For Sayers, the youngest inductee in the Hall of Fame at age 34 in 1977, it’s still sweet to be remembered even if a younger generation of fans’ memories only stretch back to Barry Sanders.
“I’m in the computer business right now, and I’m doing other things,” Sayers said. “That was yesterday. A lot of these young kids don’t know me. Their fathers know me, and their grandfathers know me, but this is why they’re coming up because their father or grandfather is saying, ‘Go get this card signed or this photo signed because he was an outstanding football player.’ It’s always nice to be recognized again.”
It’s difficult for football fans to imagine the name Gale Sayers not ringing a bell. Even though his career was abbreviated by knee injuries (1965-71), Sayers still managed to leave an indelible impression on the league. Sayers tied an NFL mark with six touchdowns in one game and was named All-NFL five times, including leading the league in rushing in 1966 and ’69.
It’s disheartening to Sayers that not only has he and his generation of players been forgotten by the fans, but also the current players as well.
“For all these young kids that make all this kind of money, five, six, 10 million dollars a year, but the players who made the game what it is, they made $25,000 a year,” Sayers said. “You wish some of the players today would recognize those old players. Not the fans, but some of the players would recognize. If it wasn’t for those players, they wouldn’t be playing this game.”
Still, Sayers isn’t jealous that he has had to start his own business, while today’s players are set for life. However, he is worried about some of his brethren who haven’t fared as well in their lives after football.
“I do not begrudge anybody for making all the money they can make,” Sayers said. “The owners are the ones giving the money away, so I don’t begrudge any of them. There are some people who played in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that are hurting. And they need help, whether it’s through the players’ pension or whatever else. I just wish we could get some more of the pension money.
“The players that are playing today, they’re never going to need a pension, making the money they’re making. Why don’t they give their pension to the old-timers – the Otto Grahams and Chuck Bednariks and people like that who didn’t make a lot of money who need it. It’s too bad that players today do not really feel that way.”
While a few of the mall patrons may have had a hard time distinguishing the NFL legend, Sayers does have another avenue of notoriety. The 1971 TV movie Brian’s Song portrayed Sayers’ teammate Brian Piccolo’s struggle with cancer. In the film, Billy Dee Williams plays Sayers and James Caan is Piccolo, the overachieving running back trying to compete with Sayers, an All-American at Kansas. The movie is an emotional tale of Piccolo’s early death to the disease and of his friend Sayers who was with him every step of the way.
“I’m quite sure I have a fanbase out there that never saw me play, but saw the movie Brian’s Song,” Sayers said. “So people that grew up probably 45 and older saw me play. People 40 and down probably didn’t see me play.
“A lot of people always say, ‘I named my son after Brian because of Brian’s Song, or I named my son Gale because of Brian’s Song.’ I have a lot of fans out there that never saw me play, but remember me from the movie Brian’s Song.”
Contact Oracle Sports Editor Anthony Gagliano at firstname.lastname@example.org