Like the rest of Bears Nation, I was deeply saddened today to hear of the loss of the greatest pure runner ever to have played the game, Gale Sayers.
Sayers was one of my football idols, and as I will explain below he’s largely the reason that I became a life-long Chicago Bears fan. This is my story, and the story about how watching an amazing athlete can affect a person’s entire life.
When looking back to teams of the 1960’s, there are very few players that you see that would be slam-dunk all-pro’s if they walked onto today’s playing fields in their prime, but that Bears team had two of them, Sayers and Dick Butkus.
Although I never got to see them in person, I was able to see them on television (which I finally got access to in 1970) while still in their primes. As a kid living in the Orient, I was raised on radio. We didn’t have a TV until 1969, purchased so we could watch the Apollo Landings (all of the stations where we lived were in Japanese which none of us spoke very well), and it wasn’t until we moved to Okinawa that we had an American language station.
All of this means that I became a Bears fan by listening to game-rebroadcasts on the radio. (To this day, I prefer to listen to the radio broadcast live and I don’t watch Bears games on TV as they are being played).
When listening on the radio, you see things in your mind, and with Gale Sayers I think he’s the only football athlete I can remember where the vision of him in my mind wasn’t as impressive as seeing his actual exploits. The only other athlete I can think of that is like this is Michael Jordan in his prime.
Back in 2017, I wrote the following for an article about how I, a boy not from Chicago or Illinois and living half way around the world, became a Bears fan.
I thought it appropriate to re-share it today, in honor of Mr. Sayers.
Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus lead me to being a Chicago Bears fan
I became a Bears fan one night in November, 1968.
I’m not sure what day exactly, but it was a school night. I was in Miss Inoye’s class at Tachikawa’s grade school annex on Tachikawa Air Force Base on the Kanto plains in Japan.
My father was away with his team of fellow McDonnell-Douglas F-4 Phantom factory engineers in DaNang, Vietnam on one of his several six-months tours of service, so it was just the four of us, my mom and two older sisters in the house at supper time.
Both of my sisters left with neighborhood friends after dinner (6:00 PM sharp, every day) and mom settled in for a night of reading, which meant for once I got to choose which radio station we listened to.
Not that there were a lot of choices. There were MANY radio stations in the Kanto area on the outskirts of Tokyo, but very few of them were in English. At that time, there was no English language television whatever in Japan, so we didn’t even have a TV set.
I tuned in to the scratchy barely-in-range American language radio broadcast (probably AFN radio in Yokohama but it could have been a shortwave station or even a wildcatter) for the evening’s programming, which turned out to be a rebroadcast of the November 3 football game between the Chicago Bears and the Green Bay Packers.
I’d never actually seen a football game live, so I had to imagine what was going by listening to the descriptions of the announcers… who talked of giant armored men battling it out in the trenches (I did know what trenches were, it seemed a bit confusing because I had seen football fields and I never saw a single one of them with trenches).
As I listened, there was this player named Gale Sayers who seemed to be running past, around and through everybody in sight. Every time he touched the ball, he seemed to break off runs for huge yardage. The announcers were excitedly talking about him breaking an all time team record for rushing yardage, but near the end of the game they were shocked when he fumbled the ball and it put the Bears in terrible trouble.
Going into the game, I knew that my father liked the Bears and rooted for them casually, but I personally didn’t care one way or the other... but as Sayers gained yard after yard, I started pulling for him and the Bears more and more.
My firm bedtime was 9:00, and I fully expected that when it hit the game would be turned off… so I kept hoping that my mom would not be watching the clock. I looked out of the sides of my eyes and I could see that she was getting caught up in the game as well.
At 9:00 sharp she told me it was time to get ready for bed, and I knew better to argue… one didn’t argue with my parents, or whine (therein laid the road to perdition), so I got ready for bed while leaving the radio on…
It got down towards the final two minutes of the game, and my mother motioned me over to the couch to sit next to her. It was a 10-10 tie and it looked like that’s how the game would end (there was no overtime back then).
The Packers punted to Chicago, and the Chicago returner fair-caught the ball on the Packers 43-yard line.
Up until then I had been following along pretty well, as I had listened to other football games before, but something was going on that was turning both the game and the announcing of it into pure chaos.
I gotta admit, it got really baffling to listen to.
It was apparent by the radio call’s descriptions that the players on both teams were perplexed about what was happening on the field as well.
With 23-seconds left on the clock, the Bears somehow (seemingly randomly) went out and kicked the ball through the uprights to win the game.
To me, it didn’t matter. The Bears who I was rooting for had won, and the Packers had lost. I gotta be honest, that’s something that hasn’t changed with me since 1968... Bears beating Packers is good, every single time.
I now know (unlike when I listened to it via taped delay) that the November 3, 1968 game was one of the most famous games in Bears history. Gale Sayers ran for 205 yards (his all-time best and a week before his first serious knee injury).
Bears kicker Mac Percival converted an extremely rare “free kick” from the 43-yard line after offensive line coach Abe Gilbron talked head coach Jim Dooley into giving it a try. Back in the 1960’s in the NFL, the goal posts were on the goal line, making the field effectively 20-yards shorter in the kicking game (10-yards on each end).
Here’s some more information about that game:
Most Bears fans know all about their team’s 73-0 rout of the Redskins in the 1940 NFL title game, Gale Sayers’ six-touchdown performance against the 49ers in 1965 and the exploits of the 1985 Super Bowl champions... but the “Free Kick” game also stands out in team history.
Chicago won the game 13-10. With that one game, the Bears had turned a young boy in military family housing half-way around the world into a life long fan.
That’s how I became a fan of the Chicago Bears.
How did YOU become a fan of the Bears? Were there any special games in your early Bears fandom you would like to share?
Ken’s Note: As Homer Hickam put it in his wonderful memoir about his parents and an alligator, “Carrying Albert Home”, this is a “somewhat true” story based entirely upon the remembrance of my six-year-old self. There was a game, there was a radio broadcast, and the happenings described on the field are factual. The rest is as I remember it 50 years later from the depths of the mind of a former first grader.