18 Inches of Daylight: The Gale Sayers Story

Today, we’re going to talk about the short, but a highly productive career of running back Gale Sayers, who passed away this week at the age of 77. On the surface, the Kansas Comet’s career numbers may not look spectacular, especially compared to the statistics of who we consider the greatest running backs of all time: Jim Brown, Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, etc.

To appreciate Gale Sayers’ career, you have to do a deeper dive into game-by-game stats, highlights, and stories of adversity.

This article is also a podcast over at the Football Attic if you are interested in listening, you can do so below.  You can also read the full article if this is your preference.

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Every Friday, host John Gidley shares interesting stories of games, players, coaches and teams that aren’t necessarily forgotten, but are not as well-known as they should be. 

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Kansas Comet Rookie Year

After three productive seasons at the University of Kansas, including a 1962 game against Oklahoma State in which he ran for 283 yards, Sayers had a choice to make: he was taken with the fourth overall pick of the 1965 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears and was also the fifth selection of the AFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs.

Given the opportunity to play for legendary coach George Halas, Sayers chose Chicago. His first two NFL games were underwhelming, but in week three, playing the eventual champion Packers in Green Bay, Sayers introduced himself to pro football. Despite a 23-14 loss, he totaled 184 yards with two touchdowns.

Two weeks later, in a 45-37 win at Minnesota, Sayers scored not one, not two, not three, but four touchdowns, all of them coming in the second half. Trailing 23-17 in the third quarter, he caught an 18-yard pass from quarterback Rudy Bukich for his first score. Fran Tarkenton then ran for a touchdown to give the Vikings the lead once again. Sayers responded by catching another touchdown pass from Bukich, this one from 25 yards out.

Minnesota scored yet again on a four-yard run by Tommy Mason. Now trailing 37-31, Sayers took the ensuing kickoff 96 yards to the house, putting the Bears ahead to stay. Just for good measure, he later tacked on a ten-yard touchdown run, his fourth and final score of the game. After scoring in four of his next five games, Sayers ended his rookie season with a bang, beginning in week 11 at the Giants.

In a 35-14 win, Sayers ran for 113 yards and two touchdowns. The next week, in a 13-0 win at the Baltimore Colts, he ran for 118 yards and a score. These were both great performances, but both would pale in comparison to what he did on December 12, 1965.

That day, the Bears hosted the San Francisco 49ers at muddy Wrigley Field. The first points of the game came in the first quarter when Bukich threw an 80-yard touchdown pass to Sayers.

In the second quarter, Sayers scored twice more on runs of 21 and seven yards. If that wasn’t enough, he ran for two more touchdowns in the third quarter, one from 50 yards out, and another coming on a one-yard plunge. By the midway point of the fourth quarter, the game was well out of reach, with Chicago leading, 47-20, and Sayers having scored five touchdowns. But he wasn’t done yet.

Fielding a punt from the 49ers’ Tommy Davis at his own 15-yard line, Sayers weaved through every San Francisco defender, got blocks from his fellow Bears, turned on the afterburners, and raced 85 yards for his sixth touchdown of the game. The final score was Chicago 61, San Francisco 20.

Sayers accounted for 36 of those points and finished with 336 all-purpose yards. Perhaps the most amazing stat of his performance was that he ran for four touchdowns on only nine carries, meaning that he scored every other time he ran the ball.

In the next week’s regular-season finale, Sayers came back down to earth, only totaling 157 all-purpose yards and a single touchdown in a home loss to Minnesota. When all was said and done, in 14 games, Sayers totaled 2,325 all-purpose yards with 22 touchdowns, all as a rookie.

Naturally, he won Offensive Rookie of the Year honors from the Associated Press but did not win MVP. That honor went to Jim Brown instead, who had less all-purpose yards than Sayers but nearly equaled his total touchdowns with 21.

This would turn out to be Brown’s ninth and final NFL season, before suddenly calling it a career at age 29.

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    A Hall of Fame Career

    Gale Sayers never again had a game that resembled his clinic against the 49ers, but then again, no other running back has. Despite scoring only 12 touchdowns in 1966, ten less than in ’65, he actually totaled even more all-purpose yards.

    Here are some of his game totals from his sophomore season: 241 in a week seven home win over Los Angeles (including a 93-yard kickoff return for a touchdown), 202 the next week in a Monday night loss at the St. Louis Cardinals, 237 in a week 12 home defeat of Atlanta, and 339 in the last game of the year, a home win over Minnesota.

    Do you think 2,325 all-purpose yards in 1965 was a great season? How about 2,498 in 1966? This would be the year he won MVP, right? Unfortunately, he came up short yet again.

    Instead, the MVP was Bart Starr, who led the Packers to a win in the first-ever Super Bowl that season. Despite just 14 touchdown passes, Starr only threw three interceptions.

    In 1967, Sayers began to show slight signs of regression. After all, he had just totaled over 4,800 yards in his first two seasons. His total yardage in his third year dropped to 1,689, but he scored 12 touchdowns once again and turned in a classic Sayers performance in a Week 12 game in San Francisco against his old punching bags, the 49ers. He ran for a touchdown, and returned both a kickoff and a punt for scores, finishing the day with 233 yards and three TDs.

    On November 3, 1968, Sayers ran for 205 yards, and added 46 yards on a kickoff return, in the Bears’ 13-10 win at Green Bay. The next week, playing at home against San Francisco, Sayers was tackled by the 49ers’ Kermit Alexander and tore his ACL, MCL, and his meniscus, all on one tackle.

    A devastating injury like this would end the career of the average player, but as we know by now, Gale Sayers was no average player. That offseason, he completed a strenuous rehabilitation program with the help of teammate Brian Piccolo, who had replaced Sayers in the starting lineup. Piccolo would die from cancer the next year at age 26, and his story would be made into a TV movie in 1971, “Brian’s Song,” starring James Caan as Piccolo, and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers.

    In 1969, Gale Sayers defied all odds. He overcame his crippling knee injury from the year before and led the NFL in rushing with 1,032 yards. Naturally, a performance like this earned him Comeback Player of the Year honors. Unfortunately, his post-injury success could not be sustained.

    He only played a combined four games in the next two seasons and retired in 1971 at age 28. He had already made his presence felt in previous years, however, and this was confirmed in 1977 when he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 34. He is still the youngest inductee at Canton. Luckily, his legacy has lived on, thanks in large part to NFL Films. A lasting clip of Sayers looks to have been filmed at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, prior to one of the four Pro Bowls he participated in.

    Sayers is kneeling on the field as the camera quickly zooms in on his face. He looks into the camera and says simply, “Give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.”

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