Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk: Gale Sayers

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It’s May 1977; the sun has risen over the east side of Lawrence and is warming the air. Thousands of Jayhawks dressed in their caps and gowns walk through the World War II Campanile and make the joyous trot down the hill toward Memorial Stadium. Among those proud KU students is a man who may be more ecstatic than any of the others to walk down the hill. Many of the students, faculty and spectators of commencement know him not as a student, but as one of the greatest running backs to ever don the crimson and blue. They know him as the NFL record holder for touchdowns as a rookie, and they almost certainly know him by his nickname- “The Kansas Comet.”
From the moment Gale Sayers stepped foot on Mount Oread as a freshman in 1961, he was on a mission to prove to people from his hometown and all the other doubters wrong about two things, that he could be a star on the gridiron at the college level and that he could achieve greatness in the classroom at the college level.
“When I was at Central High School in Omaha, Nebraska, a lot of people didn’t think I could go to college and be successful on the football field and as a student,” Sayers said. “I wanted to prove them wrong.”
In 1961 freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity football squad, but they practiced with the entire team, which is when Sayers remembers that he started to prove to people he could be an effective football player.
“All of our practices were against the varsity, so it gave me an opportunity to showcase my skills,” Sayers said. “I felt I could always play college football. When I got out on the field I let my legs do the talking for me.”
While his prowess on the field seemed to come easy to him, Sayers’ struggled in the classroom his freshman year. With help from friends and his brother, buckled down and improved his grades over the course of his tenure at Kansas.
“My brother was a year ahead of me. He went to Omaha University and I talked to him quite a bit,” Sayers said. “He would tell me ‘Gale you need to stay in school, and you need to show them that you are a student and an athlete.'”
Sayers was a two-time All-American while at Kansas, where he recorded 2,675 rushing yards, including setting an NCAA record with a 99-yard touchdown run, and was a hot commodity after his senior season in 1964. He was drafted by two teams in 1965, fourth overall by the Chicago Bears in the NFL, and fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFL. Sayers ultimately decided to sign with the Bears, and left Kansas 12 credits shy of receiving his bachelors degree.
Sayers had a prolific career in the NFL, where he was the 1965 rookie of the year, two-time rushing champ, four-time pro-bowler and five time AP First-Team All-Pro, and set numerous records, including the aforementioned rookie touchdown record, the record for most touchdowns in a game and the single-season all-purpose yards record, to name a few. Sayers’ professional football career, though, was unfortunately cut short by knee injuries.
Sayers retired from the NFL in 1972, and returned to the University of Kansas, this time as an Assistant Athletic Director and was later named Assistant Director of the Williams Education Fund. In this time, Sayers decided to set out to finally prove the doubters incorrect about being able to achieve in the classroom and get his degree. Looking back, Sayers said he always knew he would return to KU to finish his academic career.
“I knew I wanted to get my degree, because my brother had his,” Sayers said. “I felt that I wanted to prove to people that I could do that as well (as be a successful football player).”
In the four years Sayers was on the staff for KU Athletics he worked hard to finish the classes he needed to earn his bachelors degree in physical education. He also completed all of the necessary coursework to receive a masters degree in educational administration.
“The University of Kansas has a great campus and a great athletics program and I felt so proud to be able to earn my degree from KU,” Sayers said.
After earning his masters degree, he went on to be the Athletic Director at Southern Illinois University, was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1977 as the youngest person ever to be inducted and launched many successful business ventures, including a computer supplies company. Sayers eventually returned to Kansas in 2009 as Director of Fundraising for Special Projects. Sayers served in the position until 2012 when he left to take on other business ventures.
Sayers returns to the University of Kansas as much as possible, and is amazed by how much the campus and facilities have changed since his days of wearing the Crimson and Blue on the gridiron.
“(The Campus) has changed quite a bit. I enjoy coming back to that atmosphere,” Sayers said.
When Sayers returns to Lawrence, he likes to try to talk to the football team and current students, and encourage them to stay on an academic path, because he knows firsthand how important getting an education can be.
“Anytime I can come back for a football game, I will. I come back and try to talk to the football squad and other students. I know I wasn’t that good of a student, but I made it. I went to class and I worked hard and I made it,” Sayers said. “When I see kids I tell them that getting a degree will help you be a successful individual.”
Sayers admits that he is as proud about earning his degrees as he is about all of his achievements on the football field. He spoke with incredible enthusiasm when describing walking down the hill on commencement day for graduate school that you would have thought he was retelling a story about shedding tacklers and breaking off a big run for a touchdown.
“When I first came to KU I saw the students going down the hill and that’s what I wanted to do. I walked down that hill so my brother could see me, and my friends could see me, and it made them happy, and of course it made me happy to get that degree,” Sayers said. “I had a tear in my eyes, because I knew a lot of people didn’t think that Gale Sayers could be a successful student.
“I did something that a lot of people didn’t think I could do. A lot of people didn’t think that I could be a winning athlete and a winning student, that’s why I wanted to get that masters degree. I thank the University of Kansas and all of my friends who helped me show people I could be a good student. KU is a great school and I’m glad I went to Kansas.”
Once a Jayhawk, Always a Jayhawk.