Kansas native and KU alum Gale Sayers died last week at age 77. He is a football icon, an incredible running back whose short career did nothing to obscure the brilliance of his play.
"I have no idea what I do," Sayers told Sports Illustrated in 1965, perhaps being overmodest about his talents. "I hear people talk about dead leg, shake, change of pace, but I do things without thinking about them."
Sayers was also famed for his heart. His friendship and support for teammate Brian Piccolo, who courageously fought cancer, was the inspiration for the enduring TV movie "Brian’s Song."
We should all remember and honor this towering player and man. Kansas played a special role in his life and career. He was one of the greats, and during a time when greatness seems like it increasingly eludes us, that’s worth holding onto.
But we shouldn’t forget some of the other lessons from Sayers’ life.
First, regardless of the fame he achieved, regardless of the quality of his play, Sayers didn’t achieve one of his main goals — to work in the NFL in a capacity other than player. According to his New York Times obituary: "He said he had applied to every N.F.L. team for a front-office job but never received an interview — a source of sadness for him, according to friends."
That’s a sad legacy for a game that too often looks at its players as disposable, replaceable cogs rather than talented individuals.
Along those same lines, we mustn’t ignore Sayers’ cause of death. Like many of his teammates, he suffered from dementia and Alzeheimer’s disease. And just like those teammates, there’s a good chance that game of football played a major role in creating that diagnosis. While players today are aware of the risks of concussions and on-field jostling, there was no such information available in Sayers’ time.
Who knows what kind of precautions could have been taken, preserving both his incredible physical and mental skills. And not just Sayers, but the many others who preceded him in death and illness, and those who are suffering today.
We don’t mean to detract from Sayers’ legacy. But as he himself knew, sometimes it’s not the game that most shows your humanity. It’s the care and concern for others, a true sense of selflessness, that can make a lasting difference.