Tuesday, December 14, 2010

"When He Gets There He's Gone"

Forty-five years ago Sunday, the most sensational rookie in NFL history gave a performance that defied description. “I never saw such a thing in my life!” said Bears coach George Halas, who had seen plenty in his long career. At the time, the NFL was half as old as it is now, but Papa Bear’s statement would still stand. No one has seen another game like the one that Gale Sayers had in the slop that day.

     A steady rain turned Wrigley Field into a virtual swamp for the Bears-49ers game of December 12, 1965. Like all of his fellow players, the Bears’ electrifying rookie Gale Sayers was concerned about the conditions. “It was a rainy, muddy day and I actually didn’t like playing in that kind of weather,” he recalled. “So many things can happen; you can slip, pull a muscle, tear a hamstring.”
     It wouldn’t have been surprising if the sloppy footing had neutralized Sayers more than anyone else, for speed and agility were his chief weapons. But Sayers ran wild. First he caught a screen pass from Rudy Bukich and romped 80 yards for a touchdown. Then he ran 21 yards from scrimmage for a second touchdown. He scored again on a seven-yard run from scrimmage.
     Next, Sayers took a handoff and zigged and zagged his way 50 yards for yet another touchdown. It appeared that he alone was playing on a dry field, while 21 other men slipped and slid around him.
     His fifth touchdown came on a straightforward plunge from one yard out.
     Sayers saved his most spectacular play of the day for last. Fielding a San Francisco punt at his own 15-yard line, he made a dazzling move against the grain, leaving his would-be tacklers stupefied. He went 85 yards to the end zone, and was all by himself after passing the midfield stripe.
     With this sixth touchdown, Sayers equaled the single-game record. It was his 21st of the season, also a record at the time. He might have scored once more, but he slipped (finally) making one of his patented cuts on a punt return—after he’d already gone 32 yards. “The way things were going,” Sayers recalled years later, “I probably could have scored eight touchdowns that day. But back then no one cared about records. I didn’t even know I’d tied the six-touchdown record until after the ballgame.”
     The final score was 61-20. The man known as the Kansas Comet amassed 336 total yards for the day—with 113 yards on nine rushes (an average of 12.5 per carry!), 134 yards on punt returns, and 89 yards on two pass receptions. “I wonder how many touchdowns Sayers would have scored,” 49ers assistant coach Y.A. Tittle mused, “if we hadn't set our defense to stop him.”
     San Francisco defensive back George Donnelly offered an apt description of Sayers’s elusiveness in the open field: “He looks no different than any other runner when he’s coming at you, but when he gets there he’s gone.”

Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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