Amid a weekend dominated by headlines about March Madness, there was a double whammy of awful news about two great, beloved former NFL players.
A story from Kansas City detailed the dementia that is claiming the memories of Gale Sayers, the Chicago Bears’ legendary running back, while Dwight Clark, the San Francisco 49ers’ wide receiver who was one half of “The Catch,” announced that he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
For both men, there is an awareness that playing football may be a contributing factor to what they are experiencing now. Clark is at least the fifth former NFL player in the last 10 years to be diagnosed with what is also called Lou Gehrig’s disease. While he said in a statement that he doesn’t know for sure whether football “caused this,” he adds that “I certainly suspect it did. And I encourage the NFLPA and the NFL to continue working together in their efforts to make the game of football safer, especially as it relates to head trauma.”
The game we love, every day it seems, is claiming the players we’ve loved.
“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this has to be on football,’ ” Gale Sayers’s wife, Ardie, told Vahe Gregorian of the Kansas City Star. “ … It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head … It’s just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in.”
Sayers’s wife does most of the public speaking for him as his memories recede, day by day. Now 73, the youngest player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame is, she says, healthy “as a horse,” working out with a trainer and playing golf. But the problem, as Ardie Sayers told Gregorian, is “that brain controls everything, doesn’t it?”
After a brief stay in a facility, Sayers is now at his home with Ardie in Wakarusa, Ind., as she and in-home health professionals work with him on things as simple as signing his name.
“I say, ‘Okay, come on, let’s fill up this page.’ I’ll write one, and then you write one.’ At times you can wait 30 minutes, or maybe 10 minutes. And then he’ll do it like there’s never been anything wrong. It takes a lot of patience.”
As with other caregivers, she knows never to let him out of her sight, lest he wash his hands for dinner with carpet cleaner, as he did the other night. “It keeps you on your toes,” she said.
— The Kansas City Star (@KCStar) March 19, 2017
It’s an especially heartbreaking story for anyone who has seen “Brian’s Song,” the 1971 movie about Sayers’s relationship with Brian Piccolo, his Bears teammate who died of cancer. Shortly before Piccolo’s death, Sayers, who had rebounded from injuries to win the NFL rushing title, was presented with the George Halas award as the league’s most courageous player for the 1969 season. Sayers brought the crowd to tears with his comments then.
“He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent — cancer,” Sayers told the audience. “He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day of his life … I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
Ardie now fights to maintain that spark of what makes Gale Sayers special.
“I felt like I could do better here — give him more attention, give him more of the things he needs. I don’t want him to be just sitting around doing nothing.
“No, he’s still got a lot going for himself, and I don’t want him to forget it.”