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Gale Sayers: Another tragedy and not the last

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The Bears Hall of Famer has dementia. Sayers’ career and new battle are just another symbol of the tragic football condition.

Pittsburgh Steelers v Chicago Bears
Sayers next to fellow Bears legend Dick Butkus
Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s a stark contrast from the branding of the modern NFL era, but back in the 1960’s, players with the swagger and natural ability of former Chicago Bears great, Gale Sayers, weren’t common. A guy who talked the talk and walked the walk was a welcome breath of fresh air.

“Give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need,” said Sayers in perhaps his most famous quote. And when you saw the man who largely only received a gold jacket from Canton based off of five successful years of a career actually play, you understood he wasn’t lying.

Sayers, to his credit, sometimes needed less than a foot and a half of space. He would leave defenders in his wake effortlessly. He could create space out of the tiniest holes in brick walls of defenders, all while doing it with an impeccable and unmatched grace that could translate to any era of football. Subjectively, he might have been the most naturally talented runner of all time. If not for knee injuries, that almost certainly wouldn’t even be debatable.

That’s the end of the feel-good story surrounding Sayers, because his narrative doesn’t go the way you’d think for a player such as him. Or at least, the way people on the outside prefer not to think of the mental and physical battles long standing football players have to go through after their careers for fear of discomfort in what they’ve watched. Another notch added to the belt of the effects of the game and an overall lost path for what could’ve been.

The 73-year-old Sayers, as announced by his wife Ardie on Monday, has been battling dementia since 2012. Interestingly enough and certainly not surprisingly either, she claims it was because of the sport he devoted himself to that he sits where is today. His story obviously isn’t uncommon for other former players either.

Despite all of the fame and adventures afforded to the family over the years of Sayers’ college stardom at Kansas and the bright star that was his NFL career - a source of great pride and identity for him - it’s also become a part of the debilitating process late in his life according to his wife.

“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic (Sayers’ hospital) said, yes a part of this has to be on football,” said Ardie Sayers. “It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head, it’s just the shaking of the brain with the force they play the game in.”

And like many other former players if you asked them personally for an honest answer, Sayers would probably say he regrets nothing about where he’s come from, even if it leaves him in a challenging position in the twilight of his life. That doesn’t make what he’s been going through any less tragic or misguided in the sense of what this brutal game does to the human body, though. Not by a long shot. That’s a crucial piece of this dilemma and moral conscience of a violent game to understand.

The reveal of the mental hurdles Sayers has been going through on a daily basis for quite some time come on the heels of another ex-Bear in Lance Briggs making sure to note of his living with chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE, just last week.

As a younger retiree, Briggs’ aim with a video campaign was to make sure players of his ilk aren’t forgotten down the line as more and more players go public with their conditions. Whether he’s successful or another more resourceful movement is made down the line remains to be seen.

The reveal of Sayer’s dementia also coincidentally piggy-backs off of the revelation of San Francisco 49ers legend, Dwight Clark, disclosing he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS, earlier this week on the website of former 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. While Clark couldn’t 100 percent confirm what he’s been going through was related to his career in San Francisco, he made sure to maintain that it could and should definitely at least be partly attributed to it.

"I've been asked if playing football caused this," Clark said. "I don't know for sure. But I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma."

Both symptoms or disease - whatever you want to call them - in ALS and dementia have been commonly rooted in being caused by the blunt force trauma of football. So it’s no shock that the man who once made “The Catch” in Clark or the man who once scored six touchdowns in a game as the “Kansas Comet” in Sayers are going through what they are now.

As always, players and fans make the decision to play this game, to watch, to revel in the team building and unite with teammates. Players sometimes actually pride themselves on the toughness they possess to play football and subject themselves to the dangers of the sport - let alone actually be a quality roster contributor.

But making that decision and acknowledging the inherent problems associated with football doesn’t in any way positively change what happens to the people who actually play this game. There’s a huge risk and it might not be worth it.

Keep that in mind as the NFL continually covertly tries to sweep these issues under the rug and as owners penny pinch over the smallest difference of contracts in collective bargaining agreements. Or, as particular ownership groups attempt to take away worker’s comp’ from players aged past 35.

The numbers in paying out said benefits for example, would barely harm an NFL owner’s pockets, of course. But alas, they do what they can to take as much as possible from players in a salary structure where many players can be cut at the drop of a hat in a game that already takes everything else of consequence.

Even as players like Sayers and Clark reveal their battles, somehow greed and a blind eye still go hand in hand. The battles of these two men and Briggs, are how action is mobilized though - with publicity - as the league and those in charge are forced to address what they prefer to be ignored for fear of backlash. There’s a case to be made that those who make themselves vulnerable in this stature are to be the most commended because of what change they can bring, whether it’s their intention or not.

As for what Ardie Sayers has to say about her family’s plight and the condition bestowed on her husband because of football? Well, she’s only trying to see the positives. She’s digging into the care of her life partner.

“It’s hard, yes, I’m not saying it isn’t. And it’s challenging at times. But then when I stop and think about the people around me and people that are willing to help and family that are willing to come … we’re blessed that way.”

Robert Zeglinski is the Bears beat writer for the Rock River Times and is a staff writer for Windy City Gridiron and Second City Hockey. You can follow him on Twitter @RobertZeglinski.