They were teammates on the gridiron, making black-and-blue memories for the Monsters of the Midway.
Mike Ditka was the bruising Chicago Bears tight end, Gale Sayers the sensational young halfback. They lined up in the same offense in 1965 and 1966, long enough to form a deep mutual respect and lifelong friendship.
Today, Ditka and Sayers are teammates again, but this time for a game that extends beyond the football field. They share a common purpose in Gridiron Greats, a group pushing hard to raise awareness and funds for retired NFL players in dire need of medical and financial assistance — players who have fallen beyond the scope of the NFL Players Association, with its focus on active players.
Several years ago, Ditka reached out to Sayers to join him in the organization founded by former Green Bay Packers great Jerry Kramer. The two Hall of Famers have been linked in a common cause ever since, with Ditka as director and Sayers a member of the board.
They were recently at Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino along with about 20 other former NFL players to announce an initiative: money from the Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund, raised during Super Bowl week in Tampa before the Feb. 1 game, will aid the U.S. Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which helps families of servicemen and women wounded or killed in combat.
Each player stood during the news conference and spoke briefly about his career and connection to Gridiron Greats. When it was Sayers' turn, he rose and said only these words:
"My name is Gale Sayers, and I played 68 ball games with the Chicago Bears."
Sixty-eight games that established him as one of the greatest running backs in NFL history. Nicknamed the "Kansas Comet" after a record-breaking college career as a two-time All-American at Kansas, Sayers took the league by storm in 1965 — rushing for 14 touchdowns, catching another six, returning a kickoff and punt for touchdowns, amassing 2,272 all-purpose yards and earning rookie of the year honors unanimously.
He led the league in rushing his second year with 1,231 yards, but the rise of No. 40 was undercut by two serious knee injuries. He battled back after the first to lead the NFL in rushing again in 1969 with 1,032 yards, rehabbing with the help of backfield mate Brian Piccolo — a friendship that was the basis of the 1971 movie Brian's Song, which dealt with their bond and Piccolo's death at 26 from lung cancer.
The first knee injury robbed Sayers of the blistering speed that had been his trademark. He played sparingly his final two seasons and retired in 1971.
He entered the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 34 in 1977 — the youngest player ever inducted.
"Let me tell you something, if he would have played 100 (games) — 100 — nobody would ever have beat his records," Ditka said. "I was there in 1965 when he came into the league, and I saw his greatness. He'll never talk about it. Sixty-eight games. He made me look good as a blocker, and I couldn't block anybody."
Sayers, 65, took time to talk about football, his successful second career and his commitment to helping former players — alongside an old pal from the Bears.
What's the gist of the problem retired players face?
Back when they were playing, the medical technology wasn't what it is today. It's my belief that the NFLPA and the owners should take a more positive role in helping these players. Many players today feel that they started this league. They don't remember the players who played in the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. Those players played for $5,000, $10,000 or $15,000 a year, making it so the players of today can play for $5-million a year, $10-million or $15-million.
They don't even get that the game was played before they were born. Several years ago, I asked a player, a running back who's still playing today — a good back — "What do you think about Jim Brown?" He said, "Who's Jim Brown?" That's the problem with a lot of players today — they don't know the history of the game. That's like me not knowing who Dr. Martin Luther King was. You've got to know the history of this game. If you do, you'll believe in what Mike and Gridiron Greats are doing.
What are you doing in addition to helping with this?
When I left football, I wanted to get back into the NFL — as far as a general manager or a player personnel director. So I went back to the University of Kansas, where I graduated from, and got my master's degree. From there, I went to Southern Illinois as the first black athletic director. But during that time, being an African-American athletic director, the movement wasn't that great. So I decided to go back to Chicago. In 1981, I left Southern Illinois and moved back to Chicago. I was looking for a field of the future. I got into computers, and I've been doing that ever since.
What do you do in the computer business?
I have a company called Sayers 40. We sell hardware, software and network integration services. We deal with Fortune 500 companies around the country. We have offices in Chicago, Boston, St. Petersburg, Nashville and Phoenix.
Was it hard accepting that injuries ended your dream?
Not really. God gave me a great gift to play the game. And he took it away after 68 ball games. If I'd have played three, four or five more years, I probably wouldn't have been in the computer business. I probably wouldn't be here talking today. I enjoyed playing and I've said so many times, "If you prepare to play, you must prepare to quit." And I did that; I prepared to quit. I knew that the average career expectancy in the NFL was 41/2 years. Today it's 31/2. So I went back to school and got two degrees and did a lot of things, and I prepared to quit. The day that I quit the game, I walked away and didn't look back. I kept on rolling.
What degrees did you get?
I got my undergrad in physical education and my master's in administration.
Who are the running backs you really like today?
(The Vikings') Adrian Peterson is doing a decent job. I hope he stays healthy. He'll be real good. And (the Chargers') LaDainian Tomlinson does a fine job. The person who probably should have played a couple more years was Barry Sanders, but he decided to give it up.
Is there a difference between players of today and earlier eras?
The game used to be we'd go out there and play it for a ring. Some of these kids today are like, "I don't care about a ring. I'm making $20-million a year; I don't care about rings." It's the same thing with the Pro Bowl. You get players who say, "Oh, I hurt my finger. I hurt my wrist. I can't go." … When I played, I wanted to prove that I was one of the best players in the league. We didn't go to Hawaii; we went to L.A. We made $1,000 and the losers made $100, and we fought like dogs for that money. It was the best game of the year. But these fellas today, they won't even play for $25,000. Because they're making $5-million, $10-million.
Is it a battle you can win?
We're going to win. We're going to continue to work on these younger players, because they can get hurt. Many of them have gotten hurt. And they're going to start thinking, "Well, what if I get hurt? Who's going to take care of me?" They're going to come our way.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.