I cried when I heard the news that Gale Sayers had died.
He was a very special person and I have long felt connected to him. That’s because I have a precious personal memory of an occasion when he extended to me a seemingly simple - yet great in my mind - kindness and courtesy more than 50 years ago.
It was 1967 and I was a senior in high school. My family lived in the Chicago suburbs during those years. I was active in 4-H in North Cook County back then, and, along with my local club involvements, I had leadership roles in our county activities. Our county awards night was coming up (likely in November, as best as I can recall), and I had volunteered to line up some special entertainment for the program.
Around the second or third week of October, I spotted a small announcement in a local advertising newspaper that came to our house, saying that, on Tuesday, October 31, Halloween night, Gale Sayers and another Chicago Bears player (I’m sorry, I do not recall which one) would be at a men’s clothing store (again, I am sorry, I cannot recall with certainty the name of the store), at what was then simply called Randhurst, a shopping center in Mount Prospect, to greet the public and sign autographs.
Randhurst was just a mile from my home, and when I read this news, I immediately decided to go to the store that night, try to meet Mr. Sayers and invite him to our county 4-H awards program. I fully realized his availability was a long shot, but at least I would ask.
It was pouring rain on Halloween night. Nonetheless, I expected there would be a huge crowd in the store and a long line to meet and greet the Bears. My dad let me use his car, and when I arrived, I was shocked and stunned to see Mr. Sayers and his teammate seated on chairs behind a wooden table and only a couple other people ahead of me, perhaps a father and young son, speaking with the players and getting autographs. (And no, no one was wearing Halloween costumes, nor were there even any Halloween decorations on display.)
Two gentlemen in suits, store employees most likely, were standing on either side of the front of the table and one asked me if I would like autographs. I recall saying “no.” I believe I replied something to the effect of I would just like to speak with Mr. Sayers. Inasmuch as no one was standing between Number 40 and me, I just said hello to him, I started telling him about our upcoming 4-H program and I asked if there was any chance he might be able to attend as our special guest. I paused and waited for him to answer with what I expected him to say without hesitation: “Sorry, kid, I won’t be able to make it.”
Instead, he said, “That sounds like a lot of fun. Let me go home and check my schedule and see if I am available that night. If you’ll write down your name and phone number, I’ll call you in a couple days and let you know either way.”
Rest assured, I could not believe what I had just heard. As I recall, one of those men standing at the table gave me a small piece of paper, and using the pen Mr. Sayers was signing autographs with, I wrote down my name and phone number and, in a total and complete daze, I handed it to him.
When I left the store, I figured that, even though he sounded very sincere, I had better not count on hearing from him. He was, after all, the famous and already iconic, not to mention extremely busy Gale Sayers and I was a nobody high school kid. I thought, at best, perhaps he would have a secretary in the Bears office call me to express his regrets.
A couple days went by, and it must have been Thursday afternoon, November 2. I had just gotten home from school and the phone rang. I answered it: “Hello.” The voice on the other end said “Hello, Linda, this is Gale Sayers.” He went on to say that he had checked his schedule as he had promised and, unfortunately, he had another commitment on the night of our 4-H program, so he was sorry, but he would not be able to attend. But he also said “I really appreciate the invitation. Please keep me in mind for another event some time.”
Mr. Sayers and I had no further correspondence after that phone conversation. But I never forgot how sweet and considerate he was to follow up personally like that in such a cordial manner. It has been amazing to be able to say: “Gale Sayers actually called me at home one time.” I think of him often and over the years I always hoped I would one day have an opportunity to communicate with him again so I could let him know how much it meant to an impressionable kid that he treated me with such respect and kind consideration back in 1967. The positive impressions that one leaves with others, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem at the time, really can and do last a lifetime.
(A bit of follow up: With Mr. Sayers unavailable to attend our 4-H awards night and share a few thoughts with the group, we were able to get a trio of talented girls from my high school that had formed a very enjoyable singing group.)
I extend my most sincere and heartfelt sympathy to Mrs. Sayers, the entire Sayers family and all those who knew and will always love Gale Sayers. I join you in celebrating his exemplary life. I take comfort in knowing Mr. Sayers has been reunited with his dear friend Brian Piccolo. It’s a happy thought to imagine the two of them running and tossing a football around together again.
The heartwarming original Brian’s Song movie provides what I consider another connection, even if small, with Mr. Sayers for me. In the scene where Gale comes home from the hospital following his knee surgery, you see Billy Dee Williams as him seated in the living room near a secretary situated against the outside wall. The secretary is a desk with a front that is lowered to provide a writing surface and this particular piece of movie set furniture also sports an upper display cabinet. In 1970 my dad bought a secretary identical to the one that appears in the 1971 movie for his small home library. That twin to the Brian’s Song secretary graces my home office today. It was only a year or two ago, while watching the movie (yet again) on cable, that I noticed the uncanny match regarding the secretary.
In all honesty I must admit that, as a Wisconsin native, I am a life long Packers fan, as my dear dad inspired me to be. But, enduring sports rivalries aside, I cherish my special memory of Gale Sayers. Of all the Bears, he will always be my favorite.