When Gale Sayers died earlier this week, he left a legacy of elegance on and off the field. The Hall of Fame running back famously said “All I needed was 18 inches,” to break open a run, and his impressive stats verify that statement.
In an injury-plagued career, he put up compelling numbers — 56 touchdowns and 4,956 rushing yards on 991 attempts through seven seasons (but just 68 games) with the Chicago Bears. Named to the Pro Bowl four times and All-Pro five times, Sayers earned his induction to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1977, the youngest inductee ever at just 34-years old.
He was also a really good guy. He and fellow runningback Brian Piccolo became one of the NFL’s first interacial roommates and genuine, beyond lifetime, friends. Sayers remained active in the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund and many other charities throughout his life.
I read Sayers’ autobiography “I am Third” in high school, I watched “Brian’s Song”, the movie based on his friendship with Piccolo multiple times (and I defy you to watch that movie and not shed a tear) and we incorporated “The Hands of Time,” the theme song from that movie, into our wedding back in 1987. I also met the man himself at a party for family friend Carrie Shipp’s graduation from Southern Illinois University, where Sayers served as AD.
I am a fan.
However, Sayers’ sad demise at age 77 also renewed a debate first sparked when my mom and her second husband John Spalding showed Mr. Sayers a picture my dad had apparently seen many years earlier at an art gallery in Chicago and purchased. Years later, my mom and John asked Sayers to sign copies of the picture for her four kids.
“I’ll sign them,” he said, with a twinkle in his eye “But he definitely did not make that tackle.”
When Sayers died, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a different picture of him and my dad, which renewed the great debate.
Did he or did he not tackle the elusive Gale Sayers?
I can neither confirm nor deny Sayers’ claim.
I can tell you that the picture my dad saw at the art gallery and later purchased took place at Wrigley Field on October 16, 1966. In that game, the Packer defense held Sayers to 68 yards and no touchdowns in 20 attempts. (To be fair, the previous year, Sayers wracked up 80 yards rushing and 104 yards receiving and scored two touchdowns at Wrigley Field against the mighty Pack. So, if the picture had been from the 1965 season, we could probably conclude that good ole number 77 might have missed the tackle.)
Unfortunately, the NFL did not publish tackles among their stats back then.
So, short of reviewing actual game footage, we’ll never know if Ron Kostelnik tackled Gale Sayers in either of the two pictures.
But it sure has been fun speculating.
Rest in peace, Mr. Sayers. Perhaps you two gentlemen could settle this debate between yourselves now.