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48 Days Until Kansas Football: Gale Sayers’ journey to KU

Sayers’ #48 jersey is one of three retired by the Kansas football program.

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Washington Redskins v Chicago Bears Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

So much has been written about Gale Sayers that there’s not much left to be said. There have been books and movies, and we’ve written about him in the past here as at RCT as well, with our very own dnoll saying, “It’s an undisputed fact that Gale Sayers is the greatest football player to ever put on the crimson and blue of KU.”

And, well, yeah, that’s hard to argue. After all, Sayers is probably one of the most nationally recognized Jayhawks of all-time.

Born in Wichita, KS but raised in Omaha, NE, Sayers was a standout football and track & field athlete. A story on Sayers in the Omaha Herald in 2005 notes that prior to high school, Sayers used to play tackle football at the local neighborhood park. Said Sayers: “I was 13 and playing against guys who were 19 and 20. I think that helped make me a better athlete, because I did not want to get hit by those guys.”

By the team his senior year of high school (1960-61) came around, Sayers was one of the hottest recruiting targets anywhere, holding more than 75 college scholarship offers.

Imagine if recruiting rankings had existed in the 1960s. Corione Harris this past February became KU’s first-ever top-100 recruit; surely Gale Sayers would have been a five-star, top-10 recruit. So how did he end up at KU?

First let’s note: recruiting back then wasn’t like it is now. There was no signing day in February. Many times, coaches didn’t know who they would have until the recruits showed up on campus and enrolled in classes. This meant that recruiting could (and did) continue throughout the summer, and sometimes even early September. Also, the season started later then than it does now; for example, KU’s first game of the 1961 season wasn’t until September 23.

Additionally, freshmen weren’t eligible to play college football per NCAA rules (this rule wasn’t changed until 1972); this meant that Sayers wouldn’t be available to his college of choice until the 1962 season.

In a radio interview in 2010, Sayers said he had intended to go to Iowa, but that the Hawkeyes head coach, Jerry Burns, didn’t have time to meet with him on his campus visit. Then in January of 1961, Sayers verbally committed to Iowa State along with a teammate. In June, he changed his verbal to Nebraska.

But on September 8, Sayers said that “pressure from Nebraska alumni and boosters of the school had irked him” and announced his intention to enroll at Kansas. At that point, Nebraska coaches gave up, saying that they had offered him “every legal inducement” while pointing out that KU was on NCAA probation for the Bert Coan incident.

I see what you did there, Nebraska.

Once Sayers got to KU, the rest, as they say, is history.

Although the Jayhawks never beat Nebraska with Sayers in the backfield, he is one of three KU football players who has had his jersey retired, and he is the only Jayhawk to be inducted into both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He led the Big 8 in rushing in his sophomore and junior seasons, and was a repeat first team All-American from multiple publications.

In 1965, Sayers became the fourth pick in the NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. Although two devastating knee injuries ended his NFL career after just seven seasons, those seasons were good enough to make him the youngest person ever inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame, a Chicago Bears legend, and one of the most recognized Jayhawks in history.