Tuesday, March 21, 2017

My Get-Well Letter to Gale Sayers

My heart just broke again hearing my childhood idol, Gale Sayers, has dementia. This is the second time Gale Sayers broke my heart. 

On a beautiful November fall day in 1968 in Winnetka, Illinois, when I was ten, my dad and I were raking leaves into a burning pile - you could do that then - on the front lawn and listening to the Chicago Bear - San Francisco 49er game on the transistor radio. 

Norman Rockwell would have puked with happiness. 

Suddenly concerned, my dad grabbed the radio and put it close to his ear. He then gave me a look that I will never forget. He had bad news he did not want to tell me. Four words changed my life:

“Gale Sayers is hurt.”

As I was ten and did not want anyone to see me cry, I ran upstairs into my room and jumped face down on the bed. Not sure how I knew, I just knew this was bad. 

In an effort to help me pull out of it, my parents suggested I write Gale Sayers a “Get-Well” letter. 

My dad said to call "The Chicago Tribune" and ask for his address. 

After calling the sports desk, I got what I like to imagine is a cigar chomping Ed Asner-like gruff sports writer who barked. “What do you want his address for?” When I told him I wanted to write Gale a get-well letter, he paused and said, “Just wait a while, kid.” 

About ten minutes later, my Ed Asner gave me Gale Sayers's home address.

The only thing I remember about my letter is making a stupid comment that, since he broke the touchdown record against the 49’ers his rookie year, maybe they were trying to get even. But I do know I did not ask for anything, just that he get better. Because that was all I wanted.

Two weeks later, I got a big yellow envelope. It had Gale Sayers's glossy rookie picture with his shaved head and it was signed to me. Along with it was a thank you note Gale Sayers wrote himself. 

Gale Sayers taught me how to run with a football. Because he said he learned his moves from chasing the family dog to try and get their ball back, I used to chase our dog and all the neighborhood dogs. Because Gale said he played football on a cold Omaha brick back alley that hurt to get tackled on, so he learned how to avoid getting tackled, I insisted we play tackle on the asphalt driveway. 

Gale Sayers also taught me that nothing good lasts forever. And that bad things happen to great people. And Gale Sayers taught me that all the love and hope in the world from a ten-year-old boy cannot make a bad knee get better.

But the thing Gale Sayers taught me the most was courage. On a knee that was later discovered to be butchered by the Bears' criminally inept doctor, Gale Sayers still led the league in rushing that next year. He did this on pure guts. Guts nobody would see the likes of again until a guy named Walter Payton. 

In all deference to Walter "Sweetness" Payton and Barry Sanders, Gale Sayers was the greatest running back ever. Period. 

Gale Sayers has broken my heart twice and he is going to break my heart one more time. And I would not have it any other way. 

(When I was in college, before a party, for the first and last time, my mom splurged and hired a cleaning crew of three strangers to scour the house from top to bottom. My framed Gale Sayers autographed picture vanished during the process)