They called him Magic, and if you played against Gale Sayers, you never forget why.
“I remember on a kickoff one time, going down to cover him over at Wrigley,” a former Giants and Vikings defensive lineman named Bob Lurtsema said Wednesday. “He’s going full speed, and I got him in my sights. I go, ‘Well, this is gonna be easy.’
“He cuts to my left, to his right, I made a beautiful tackle of pure air.
“That was the greatest move ever put on me at full speed.”
All these years later, Lurtsema jokes: “Matter of fact, a fan came out on the field afterwards, picked up my jock strap and waited for me outside the locker room and I signed it, because I lost my jockstrap on that move.”
Sayers, Hall of Fame Chicago Bear and Hall of Fame human being remembered forever by the movie “Brian’s Song” for his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, died Wednesday at 77 following a bout with dementia.
Crippling knee injuries turned Sayers’ career from Magic to tragic in that he was here today and gone tomorrow after only 68 games across six seasons.
“I never came up against a running back like him in my whole career, as far as a halfback,” former Bears linebacker Dick Butkus said at the club’s 100th anniversary celebration 15 months ago. “And that was counting O.J. [Simpson] and a couple of other guys. No one could touch this guy.”
Butkus was the third pick of the 1965 NFL Draft, after the Giants selected RB Tucker Frederickson and the 49ers chose RB Ken Willard. Sayers, the Kansas Comet who scored six touchdowns in a game once, who was a multipurpose threat, who was the youngest (34) enshrined in Canton, was the fourth pick. Lurtsema, who joined the Giants in 1967, had never encountered a back who had no hesitation finding the next available open hole.
“He could read on the run,” Lurtsema said. “That is a God-given talent.”
When the Giants game-planned for Sayers, the rules were simple.
“Stay in your lane,” Lurtsema said. “Don’t get out of your lane too quickly.”
As a Houdini running back, Sayers was comparable for some to Barry Sanders. Not for Lurtsema.
“To me, there was a big difference in their running style,” he said. “Sayers could run over you, literally run over you. Where Barry, he was light on foot, he floats.”
Lurtsema played at approximately 250 pounds. He got plenty of grief in the Giants film room when Sayers, who was 200 pounds of grace and elegance and poetry in motion, tricked him.
“I’m in perfect position, first time I ever beat an offensive lineman so quick. He lowered his head, we both stood up — I braced, you know? Then all of a sudden I’m going, ‘Wait a minute, I’m going backwards,’ ” Lurtsema said, and laughed. “He kept driving, and I had good leverage and everything. I had him autograph after the game the cleat mark he put on my chin. But no, he really ran over me.”
Sayers was black and Piccolo was white, and once the Bears ended room segregation on the road, they formed an unshakeable, unbreakable bond, Piccolo helping Sayers through his right knee rehabilitation, Sayers donating blood and staying by his forever friend’s bedside during the final days before cancer took him much too young at 26.
When Sayers received the George S. Halas Award for courage, he said: “You flatter me by giving me this award, but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. … 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.”
Lurtsema, who was a Giants player rep, befriended Piccolo at Earl Morrall’s golf tournament in Naples, Fla.
“What a great, great, great, great guy,” Lurtsema said. “Salt of the earth. When he passed, I cried. And I don’t cry for anybody.”
Tears from the football world for Gale Sayers.