An Ode to the Kansas Comet


So here it is, from 55 years ago:Modest living room, our Gary, Ind., apartment, Sunday afternoon in the fall. There are two people in the room, a 10-year-old boy and his 32-year old father.

The Chicago Bears are playing, and a rookie running back out of the University of Kansas has the ball. It’s on a handoff.No, a catch. Maybe a kickoff. Could be be a punt return. Each time, there is that moment, inspired by a cut, a hesitation, a pivot, a pirouette, a burst— that promises the possibility of magic.

Of something never before seen on a football field.

And that’s when Jay Barreiro would get up off the couch, and shout to his son: “There he goes, Danny! There he goes!”

In his younger adult years, my father was not an outwardly emotional man. Kind, yes, affectionate yes, outwardly emotional rarely. (That would come later.)

Gale Sayers with the ball transformed him, peeling everything else away.

That might have been what the kid loved most about the Sayers magic:the way it seemed to give his father permission to let go, to get lost in the moment in a way that no other athlete could.

My father and I would later share Walter Payton, but we always agreed: Though Sweetness’ heart was undeniable, nobody had Sayers’ voltage or elegance. Nobody. Ever.

Could there be a lack of objectivity here? Some sentimentality? Well, how’s this for objective? Sayers played 68 games. That’s the equivalent of just less than five seasons under the old 14-game schedule.

And yet he landed in the Hall of Fame at the age of 34, the youngest to ever receive the honor.

No other Hall member played in such a modest number of games, a testament to the fact that if you burn as brightly as Sayers did, it really doesn’t matter how quickly the burn is extinguished. He was the football savant who obliterated all the rules about longevity and durability. The Kansas Comet was like a meteor.

When Bill Cosby was a more popular figure in the culture, he once wrote that Sayers was the first running back he watched split himself in two on the field. “He is the man who splits himself in half, and leaves the half without the football with the tackler,” Cosby wrote.

The remarkable Payton prided himself on making the tackler feel him, all of him. Sayers prided himself on making the tackler swing and miss.

Kids, all I can tell you is to check the videotape. OK, the film. If you have to pick one game, you could pick the fifth game of Sayers’ rookie season, when he scored four touchdowns to lead the Bears over the Vikings, 45-37. That might have been the first one when I remember my father losing his mind as he sprang from the couch.

Sayers carried 13 times for 64 yards and a score, caught four passes for63 yards and two scores, and clinched it with a 98-yard kickoff return at the Met. He was the last player to score rushing, receiving and special teams touchdowns in the same game until Tyreek Hill matched him 51 years later.

Or, you could choose later during that 1965 season, with the Bears at home against the 49ers in a light rain and the slick grass and mud of Wrigley Field. Final score: Bears 61, 49ers 20. Sayers caught a screen pass for an 80-yard score, took a pitchout for a 50-yard TD and returned a punt for an 85-yard score. Three touches, 215 yards.

For the game, he had 336 yards total offense, including 134 yards on punt returns, 113 yards rushing, 89 yards on two receptions and six touchdowns in all, tying an NFL record.

The performance of a lifetime As a rookie. In his 13th game.

Imagine that kind of performance in today’s Social Media symphony,the cabal of multiple ESPNs and fantasy football, and innumberable talking heads.

On Nov. 3, 1968, against the Packers, Sayers rushed 24 times for 205 yards, which was his career rushing high for one game. The next week, back at Wrigley Field, he suffered a cataclysmic injury to his right knee. The irony was not lost on my father that it came against the 49ers. Sayers would return, showing great determination, even gain 1,000 yards, but one thing had changed. He could no longer split himself in two.

I never met him. But I did run into him late one night in an airport waiting area. I was somewhere west — I believe it was San Francisco —after having covered a game and I was taking a late-night flight back through Chicago. Way off in a dark corner, I spotted Sayers, perhaps waiting for the same flight or another, all by himself, wearing a Bears jacket.

I wanted so badly to talk to him about the way he used to split himself in two. I wanted to talk to him about the way, long before such sensitivity was allowed in men, especially men who played the macho game of football, he demonstrated that it was OK to cry, the way he cried for his roommate, teammate and friend, Brian Piccolo.

I thought long and hard about approaching him, and telling him about all that, and about how he energized Sundays for a father and son, but he looked like he wanted to be left alone. Today, as the football world mourns his death (how can Gale and Sweetness both be gone?) part of me regrets that I didn’t grab that unexpected opportunity. But another part of me says it is better this way.

Better that Gale Sayers remains larger than life.