December 12, 2009
In the 1965 college player draft, the Chicago Bears held three choices in the first round thanks to trades with Pittsburgh and Washington. With the third and fourth overall choices, they went with linebacker Dick Butkus from Illinois and Kansas halfback Gale Sayers. Two picks later they drafted Steve DeLong, a tackle from Tennessee who signed with the AFL’s San Diego Chargers instead.
Butkus and Sayers displayed their quality right away as rookies. The 6’3”, 255-pound Butkus took over for Hall of Famer Bill George at middle linebacker and was considered among the elite at the position by the end of the season due to his aggressiveness and ability to cover plenty of ground. Sayers, at 6’0” and 198 pounds, proved equally adept at the halfback position, displaying not only great speed but uncanny running instincts and the ability to effortlessly change direction in the open field.
Through 12 games, Sayers put his all-around skills to good use, rushing for 672 yards on 143 attempts for a 4.7-yard average with 9 touchdowns. He had caught 27 passes for 418 yards, a tidy 15.5 average out of the backfield, with another 5 TDs. In addition, he returned a kickoff for a score, giving him a total of 15 touchdowns thus far on the year. He had gone over the hundred yard mark rushing in the previous two games without carrying the ball more than 16 times in either.
On December 12, playing on muddy turf at Wrigley Field against the visiting San Francisco 49ers, Sayers had one of the greatest all-around games in pro football history. His coach, “Papa Bear” George Halas, who had seen a lot of great days by many outstanding players over the course of a career that dated back to the founding of the league, later called this the best single-game performance that he ever witnessed.
San Francisco had crushed the Bears at Kezar Stadium in the season opening game and the Bears were determined go on the attack by overloading to the left side against the 49ers defense. They did so in their second possession of the first quarter, with QB Rudy Bukich tossing a screen pass to Sayers on second and ten on their own 20 yard line. Getting good blocks, the speedy halfback threaded his way for an 80-yard touchdown.
The Bears were up 13-0 after the first quarter (the extra point attempt after the Sayers TD was missed and Bukich later hit TE Mike Ditka for a 29-yard TD). San Francisco came back to score on a nine-yard pass from QB John Brodie to split end Dave Parks to cut the Chicago lead to 13-7 with five minutes left in the half. Sayers scored on a 21-yard run, leaping over CB Jimmy Johnson at the three to make it 20-7. Back came the 49ers on a 15-yard Brodie pass to HB John David Crow, and in the last minute Sayers caught a 9-yard pass that set up his third touchdown of the game on a seven-yard sweep. Chicago led 27-13 at the half.
Sayers scored his fourth touchdown early in the third quarter on a 50-yard run, sprung by blocks thrown by TE Ditka, flanker Johnny Morris, and G Bob Wetoska. On the next Bears possession, Sayers made it five TDs on a dive from a yard out (pictured; the PAT attempt failed).
It was 47-20 in favor of the Bears after HB Dave Kopay scored for the 49ers and Chicago responded with an 8-yard TD pass from Bukich to split end Jim Jones. Sayers had one more big play to add to the day, however; the 49ers punted and he gathered in the ball at the Chicago 15 yard line. Taking off up the middle, Sayers cut to his left and then back against the flow, blazing into the clear and ending up with an 85-yard return for his record-tying sixth touchdown of the game (tied with Ernie Nevers of the Cardinals and Dub Jones of the Browns).
That was it for Sayers, in spite of the chants from the crowd; when the Bears drove down close once more, it was HB Jon Arnett scoring from two yards out to cap the 61-20 win. As Halas said afterward, “I’d never have forgiven myself if I allowed him to stay in and he was seriously injured.”
For the day, Sayers ran the ball for 113 yards and four touchdowns on just 9 carries. He caught two passes for 89 yards and another TD. With yet another 134 yards on five punt returns, including the touchdown, he had accounted for 336 total yards. Adding the six touchdowns to his season total, he broke the single-season record of 20 set just the previous year by Baltimore’s Lenny Moore.
The Bears lost the season finale, but ended up with a 9-5 record, good enough for third place in the Western Conference. Having dipped to 5-9 in 1964 after winning the ’63 NFL championship, they had gone 9-2 after losing the first three games of the year and were widely considered to be playing better than any other team in the league during the second half of the season. Much of the reason for the turnaround was attributed to the two impact rookies, Sayers and Butkus. As for the 49ers, they ended up in fourth place in the West, with a 7-6-1 tally.
When it was all over, Gale Sayers ended up with a league-leading 2272 total yards, with 867 by rushing (on just 166 attempts for a 5.2 average gain), 507 on 29 pass receptions (a 17.5 average), 660 on 21 kickoff returns (31.4 yards per return), and 238 on 16 punt returns (14.9). With one last TD in the final game, he ended up with a new NFL record of 22 (Cleveland’s Jim Brown, in his last season, was right behind at 21). While the season record has long since been broken, it still stands as the record for a rookie.