GOSHEN, Ind. -- At 74-years-old and suffering from dementia, Gale Sayers struggles with memory loss, confusion and other symptoms that make it difficult to communicate clearly some days.
That’s not the case, however, when he recognizes an old friend or hears the voice of a former colleague associated with his glory years as a star football player for the University of Kansas and the Chicago Bears.
“You can see it on his face,” said his wife, Ardythe “Ardie” Sayers. “His eyes light up when people talk about football and he seems to say the appropriate things. When someone gives him a compliment about his playing career he will say, ‘thank you.’”
This weekend Gale Sayers, who moved his family to northern Indiana a few years ago, will be on the receiving end of a big-time thank-you when he makes an appearance for the first time in years at the annual Pro Football Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies in Canton, Ohio.
Inducted into the Hall of Fame 40 years ago at the age of 34, Sayers remains its youngest inductee as well as one of football’s greatest, most elusive running backs.
This year’s ceremony honoring the newest inductees has special meaning for Sayers, his wife said.
“Gale and I talked about this for years, that on the 40th anniversary of his induction, we would donate the game ball and the shoes he wore when he scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers in his rookie season,” she said.
“We couldn’t cut the ball or the shoes up and distribute them among the kids. We agreed the hall was a good place. That way people who saw Gale play could see them and young kids that never got the chance to see him play could learn about him.”
Sayers was the fourth pick in the 1965 National Football League draft after a record-shattering, All-American career at the University of Kansas, where he was dubbed the “Kansas Comet.”
The six-touchdown feat came in the next-to-the-last week of his first season on a muddy Wrigley Field, where the Bears played their home games until 1970. Sayers scored on rushes of 21, 7, 50 and 1 yards, on an 80-yard pass reception and an 85-yard punt return in the lopsided 61-20 Bears victory. He posted 336 total offensive yards. He went on to score a record 22 touchdowns that season, earning the league’s Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Over seven seasons with the Bears, Sayers scored 56 touchdowns, rushed for 4,956 yards and totaled 9,435 total yards as a rusher, pass receiver and punt and kickoff returner. He was an All-NFL selection five times and player in four Pro Bowl games.
His career was limited to 68 games, cut short by a nagging knee injury that he first suffered in 1969
Legendary Chicago Bears Coach George Halas called Sayers’ success “the greatest performance I have ever seen on the football field.”
Sayers was diagnosed with dementia four years ago, his wife said. She believes the symptoms began surfacing in 2009.
Medical studies have shown that repetitive blows to the head area can cause chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE, in football players. The condition can result in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
“The doctor at the Mayo Clinic said football has to be a part of it, but I have never blamed the NFL. I have never blamed football,” Ardie said.
“My hope and prayer is that someday science finds a cure for this disease that affects not just athletes, but people from all walks of life.”
Greg Keim is a reporter with the Goshen, Ind., News.