(Sept. 23) NFL Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, who died Wednesday at age 77, left two indelible marks on the American psyche. The first one left football fans breathless. The second one turned into one of the greatest gifts any modern athlete gave to the broader culture.

First, on Sayers the football player: There were superstar running backs before and after Sayers, but in my 50-plus years of watching the NFL, only O.J. Simpson and Sayers were able to astonish viewers with the sheer, stunning gracefulness of their runs. Just a few months ago, not even knowing he was ill, I had reason to show old video of Sayers to a non-football fan, and even the non-fan was gobsmacked by his speed, fluidity, and ability to change directions without slowing down one iota. Despite playing on Chicago Bears teams that never made the playoffs, Sayers was the talk of the NFL throughout most of his career.

(See, here, for three back-to-back plays that capture the full Gale-force winds, fast forward to the 12:54 mark.)

Even after a devastating knee injury, at a time before orthopedic surgery was anywhere near as good as it is today, Sayers had the grit to work his way back into the NFL and again lead the entire league in rushing. He was far more fun to watch at four-fifths of his prior speed than most running backs are at their peaks. Nobody who saw him play will ever forget his virtuoso performances.

Off the field, though, Sayers made an even more indelible impression with his testaments to faith and friendship. First, there was his stirring memoir, a no-holds-barred account of a tough upbringing called I Am Third. The title came from Sayers’s personal motto: God is first, others are second, I am third. By all accounts, he tried to live up to it….

[The full column is here.]


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