A Brief History Lesson, From The SPORTS PHILOSOPHER

December 5, 2011
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     December 2nd and December 12th.   One date just passed, the other soon upcoming.   Two dates which always resonate well with me.   Both historically and personally.   One of which also resonates quite well as pertains to Sports, which ties things together quite nicely, this being a sports-oriented column.

     And by a strange series of coincidences, it all has to do with Chicago.   The City of the Big Shoulders.

     On December 2nd 1942, on an underground squash court beneath the bleachers of the University of Chicago’s Stagg Field, Enrico Fermi and a team of brilliant, dedicated, yet at the time largely unknown scientists carefully split the atom, and then controlled it, thus achieving the 1st-ever self-sustaining man made nuclear chain reaction, and thus ushering in the Atomic Age.   Therefore, this date, 12-2-’42, can reasonably be viewed, if one so chooses, as the most significant date in modern world history.   Some would say, on balance, for the wrong reasons.   But at the time no one thought too much about an arms race or radiation leaks or living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation.   All we were trying to do was beat the Nazis to the atomic bomb and win the war.   Who knew?

Gale Sayers

Gale Sayers

     Exactly fifty years to the day earlier, on December 2nd, 1892, my grandmother was born.   How’s that for some deliciously anal symmetry?   And get this—While she was celebrating her 50th birthday with my then-20-year-old future mother and the rest of their large family, at their home near 51st Street and Ellis Avenue on Chicago’s south side, and I mean at the very same time they were celebrating, it was just a few blocks due south of that, at 57th and Ellis, where those wacky scientists were secretly (and thank god successfully) managing to not blow up the University of Chicago and half the Windy City along with it, by somehow managing to control that 1st-ever nuclear chain reaction.    (Speaking of chain reactions, one could say that Granny’s birth caused a chain reaction of its own, leading to various marriages and subsequent births and life-choices and ultimately, 120-odd years later, to one of her grandchildren writing the weekly Sports Philosopher Column right here in La Verne OnLine….which hopefully you look forward to every week as much as he does writing it.)

     On December 12th, 1965, that future LVO columnist turned ten.    And on that 10th birthday he received a birthday present he would never forget, something which helped cement his love of sports and ensure that he would one day write lovingly about such things.

     My favorite football player, Gale Sayers, scored six touchdowns.   In one game.

     Sayers was a rookie that year.   He played for the Chicago Bears, my favorite football team then and now.   So yes, once again we are talking about history being made in the great city of Chicago; my kind of town.  

     The six touchdowns are tied for the most ever in an NFL game.   With two other guys.   So one cannot say that the feat, in and of itself, is unique.   Not until, that is, one analyzes how Sayers went about scoring those six touchdowns.

     It was a cold, wet, and windy Chicago day that Sunday in 1965.   Wrigley Field, where the Bears played their home games back then, was a sea of mud.   Sportswriters and other assorted experts were predicting a low-scoring game, maybe 10 to 7, or 6 to 3, or maybe even one of those scoreless ties the Bears used to specialize in way back in the 30s.

     Certainly nobody could have guessed that this muddy field would serve up a football game with a final score of 61 to 20. 

     But that’s the kind of player Gale Sayers was.   Very few football historians would argue that Sayers was not the most exciting broken-field runner in football history.   But few would call him the greatest player ever.   Except me.   I will use the December 12th game in 1965 to illustrate that point.

     Nobody ever played a football game like this.   Because nobody besides Sayers ever had the requisite skill set to accomplish it.

     On the second play of the game the “Kansas comet” grabbed a screen pass and galloped 80 yards for a touchdown, weaving his way through the entire San Francisco 49ers defense.   That was literally and figuratively just the beginning.   Later in the 1st quarter he scored again, diving into the muddy end zone at the end of a 21-yard run.   A 3rd TD before halftime—this one a run from 7 yards out—put the Bears ahead 27 to 13.

     Early in the 3rd quarter the most exciting player to ever carry the pigskin did it again, taking a pitchout and going around end for 50 yards, leaving 49er defenders strewn like so many breadcrumbs in his wake.   Four touchdowns.   A 1-yard run a few minutes later put the TD tally at five.

     By now Sayers had been notified by his teammates that he was closing in on the record.   He almost got it early in the 4th quarter, taking a punt at the 18 yard line and dashing 30 yards upfield, only to slip and fall trying to make his final cut en route to the end zone.   It was the only time all day he seemed to be affected by the mud.   Mike Ditka, Sayers’ teammate at the time, who would of course gain greater fame later in life as a head coach, television commentator, and relentlessly verbose pitch-man for every product under the sun, had his usual wry take on the situation: “Yeah, the mud affected the kid,” Ditka deadpanned.  “If it had been dry out there, he would’ve scored ten touchdowns.”

     At this point Bears’ coach George “Papa Bear” Halas cleverly removed Sayers from the game.

     But the crowd, and perhaps Halas’ cronies on the sidelines, convinced the old man to put him back in.   To return another punt.   You know how many guys in football history you could put in the game to return one last punt for a touchdown, and have any reasonable expectation that they might actually do it???  

     The answer is one.   The ball tumbled down to Sayers at the 15 yard line, he twisted and darted left and right, faked defenders to the ground with a series of breathtaking moves, and soon was just jogging to the goal line with half the 49er team face down in the mud.   Six touchdowns.   This time Halas sat him down for good, even though the 4th quarter still had several minutes to go.   Even though the Bears still had time to score twice more, en route to their 61 points.   Obviously it wasn’t that Halas was averse to running up the score.   Maybe he didn’t want the kid to get a big head, or some dumb thing.   The crowd chanted “We want Sayers!  We want Sayers!”   But the old man could not be moved.   You would have thought he would have wanted a Bear to be the one to score that impossible 7th touchdown, wouldn’t you?

     Don’t get me started on Halas.   Let’s just say that the founder of the NFL was a very strange man, and leave it at that….

     There have been only six games in NFL history when an offensive player has scored touchdowns in all three ways, i.e. running, via a pass reception, and in the return game.   Sayers did it three of those six times.   Including, obviously, in this game.   Furthermore, he is the only offensive player to ever score on a run of over 50 yards, a pass reception of over 50 yards, and a return of over 50 yards all in the same game.   All on December 12th, 1965.   The reason is simple: He’s the only one who was ever good enough and versatile enough to do it.   To be one of the best running backs in history, and also, in his spare time, the greatest return man in NFL history.   In one body.   

     And finally, perhaps the most amazing aspect of Sayers’ greatest game, this the greatest game any football player has ever played, is that to amass the amazing total of 336 all-purpose yards he accumulated he only touched the ball 14 times!   Only nine rushing attempts, only two pass receptions, and just three very electric punt returns.   That’s 24 yards every time they gave him the ball.   Only nine rushing attempts!   I’m no genius, but I think I would have given him the ball a few more times.

     Sadly, Gale Sayers was doomed to enjoy but a very short career.   Knee injuries wrecked him.   He played less than five full seasons, ‘only played in 68 measly games.   Because he had to retire so young, in 1977 at the age of 34 he became the youngest player ever inducted into the National Football League Hall of Fame.

     My whole life, people I’ve met and who have gotten to know me a little bit usually figure out pretty quickly that I know a lot about sports, and naturally I get questions all the time in the “best ever” category.   Who’s the best basketball player, the best tennis player, the best anything….is it Tiger or Jack, Mays or Aaron, Ruth or Bonds, Unitas or Montana, the best hitter, pitcher, catcher, outfielder, the best racehorse, the best horse race, the best quarterback, the best-ever game in each and every sport, the best team, the best play, the best pass, the best shot, the best catch, the best this, that, and the other.

     But when people ask me who I would vote for, for greatest football player of all time, I usually ask in return who else, besides Gale Sayers, had the unique skill set to put together the kind of otherworldly all-around game the “Kansas comet” gave us on December 12th, 1965?   When the answer invariably comes up no one else, or no answer at all, I just say ‘there you go—you just answered your own question’.

meet….The Sports Philosopher!image002

Brad Eastland is an author, historian, film buff, undiscovered literary giant, and lover of all things Chicago; tool maker, stacker of wheat, and the “hog butcher for the world”.    Brad’s other recent columns for La Verne Online can be found in the Sports Section under ‘The Sports Philosopher’ and also in Viewpoint under ‘Brad Eastland’s View’.    Brad has also written 4 novels* and over 20 short-stories.   

*To pick up a copy of his recently published novel of life at the racetrack, of triumph, and of utter despair, WHERE GODS GAMBLE, a tale of American mythology, simply search for it on amazon.com, iUniverse.com, or bn.com.   And then order it.   And then read it.   He thanks you.   




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