The Greatest Football Player I Ever Saw

I was a snoopy kid; I’d ask my father and my grand-dad all kinds of questions.
Who was the greatest baseball player they ever saw? The most memorable football game? Best power hitter?
I heard all kinds of cool stories about Ty Cobb and his bloody brawls, the smooth touch of Charlie Gehringer. The 1935 NFL Championship, between the Lions and the Giants, played in the snow at the University of Detroit Stadium. The pain of the 1934 World Series. I suppose I hoped that somebody would ask me similar questions when I got up in age, wondering about stuff I‘d seen.
Well, I’m there now … old, that is. And nobody asks.
So I’ll have to ask myself. This is one I want to get off my chest. “Who was the greatest football player you ever saw?’
Well, my favorite football players were Doak Walker, my boyhood hero. And a guy named John Kolesar, who was a receiver for the University of Michigan back in the late ‘80s. Both of them were little guys who could do anything on a football field, especially win. And Lem Barney, when he was “The Supernatural” in his early years with the Lions. Charles Woodson had similar qualities — that electricity that lets you know they were the best athletes on the field.
“That wasn’t the question. Not your favorite players … the GREATEST player you ever saw.”
Okay, you asked for it. But you’re not gonna like it. It’s an easy answer — Gale Sayers of the hated Chicago Bears. He was the greatest running back in the history of football. Certainly he was the greatest player I ever saw.
Sayers played only 51 games at his peak, from 1965 — ‘68. His right knee was destroyed by a shattering tackle in a game against San Franciso in 1968, but Sayers gamely fought on through 17 more games from ‘69 to ‘71. He was not nearly the same player then, but maybe his greatest accomplishment in his short but meteoric career was gaining 1,032 yards in 1969, during a 14-game schedule, while running on one leg.
But, ah, you should have seen him on two good ones. My God, he was otherworldly. Imagine Barry Sanders with all his moves — Sayers was even more elusive, believe it or not — but also north-south power and complete mastery and domination of a football field. That was Sayers. Great as he was, Sanders to me seemed like a visitor from another planet, a player and man apart. Sayers was all football, a Jimmy Brown-like charger who could dance like no other, a back that nobody ever got a decent hit on. It took a flying body crashing into his planted knee to finally stop him from making fools of every defensive man in the NFL.
It was amusing that Dick LeBeau was elected to the Hall of Fame last year. Not that he didn’t deserve it. But if the voters had seen just films of the years the Lions and the Bears tangled during Sayers‘ heyday, they would have seen LeBeau and Lions linebacker Wayne Walker looking like high school kids chasing him all over the field in Chicago and at Tiger Stadium. It was literally no contest. The guy was that good, and I recall chases where Sayers passed LeBeau and Walker two and three times on the same run, as he twisted and spun and went sideline to sideline through the Lions defense.
I recall, too, the sadness when people heard that Sayers had been stopped forever on November 10, 1968, after the 49ers Kermit Alexander drove a shoulder into his knee. Yes, a Chicago player was mourned in Detroit, because he was that good.  (And this was way back when the Lions were a competitive presence in pro football, days of bitter feelings between traditional rivals.)
Sadly, Sayers knee — and his magical running — could have been preserved by today’s surgical techniques. But back then he was done, finished like a great racehorse gone lame. It seems a sin, almost criminal, that he could no longer shine as he did, never again dominate football games as he had. “It was a gift,” Sayers has said. “And trust me, it was easy. It was so easy, I can’t even explain it.”
And boy, did it look it.  He was the best; and he knew it.  If you never saw him, it’s a shame. The games weren’t minutely filmed and recorded — play after play, replay after replay — as they are now. And that’s more of a shame, ‘cause you’d have to have witnessed the action ‘live’ to believe what he could do. I feel really fortunate to have seen him play.
So, yes, Gale Sayers was the greatest of all time.  I’m glad you asked.