The 10 most devastating injuries in Chicago sports
BY MARK POTASH Twitter: @MarkPotash May 4, 2012 10:54AM
When Derrick Rose went down with an ACL injury, it was devastating to Bulls fans and basketball fans in general. But, was it the most devastating injury in the history of Chicago sports? Check out the gallery of our Top 10 most devastating injuries >>
Updated: May 4, 2012 10:59AM
On slick, muddy grass at Wrigley Field in 1965, Gale Sayers once returned a punt with the Bears ahead 47-20 in the fourth quarter. What was the most dynamic runner in the NFL, just 22, doing back there on a bad field with a 27-point lead?
He was being Gale Sayers. The rookie from Kansas returned the punt 85 yards for his sixth touchdown against the San Francisco 49ers. But even George Halas had his limit. Though the home crowd was encouraging Halas to give Sayers a chance for a record-breaking seventh TD with the Bears inside the 10 later in the game, Halas wouldn’t do it.
‘‘Nobody was hungrier than I for Gale to break [the record],’’ Halas said after the 61-20 win. ‘‘But I never would have been able to forgive myself if he had gotten hurt.’’
Three years later, Halas’ worst fears were realized. On ‘‘28-toss,’’ a pitchout and sweep to the short side of the field he had run 100 times before, Sayers was running behind guard Randy Jackson when 49ers cornerback Kermit Alexander went low to take on the blocker and got Sayers’ right knee instead. The impact ruptured every ligament on the inside of the knee.
‘‘The knee is gone,’’ Sayers told Dr. Ted Fox, the team physician, on the sideline. And it was. Sayers was in surgery before many of his teammates were home.
The impact was as immense as the devastation. Though many Bears fans didn’t see the play — the game not televised locally because of an NFL blackout rule — Sayers’ injury was a blow to Chicago, the Bears and the NFL. Mayor Daley introduced a resolution extending best wishes to Sayers for a speedy recovery; it passed unanimously. Commissioner Pete Rozelle called Sayers to offer his sympathy. Alexander was as crestfallen on that day as Philadelphia 76ers coach Doug Collins was after Derrick Rose suffered a similarly devastating injury in Game 1 of their playoff series Saturday. Sayers received hundreds of get-well cards from broken-hearted kids from the Chicago Boys Clubs.
It was arguably the most devastating injury in Chicago sports history. Sayers returned for the 1969 season with his knee repaired (though not reconstructed, like they do arthroscopically today). The first time he touched the ball in a game, he returned the opening kickoff 69 yards in the exhibition opener at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. He led the NFL in rushing with 1,032 yards in 14 games.
But he was never the same. Sayers’ longest run that season was 29 yards. He averaged 24.2 yards on 17 kick returns — a far cry from the 37.7 yards he averaged as the most lethal kick returner in NFL history in 1967.
In Chicago, there was the same kind of sadness that hung over the United Center as Rose hobbled to midcourt before the Bulls-Sixers game Tuesday night — until Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer and Sayers’ injury was quickly put in perspective. After that, there was just regret that the greatest runner anybody had ever seen would never be the same.
Other injuries might have been more costly in terms of championships — with a healthy Jim McMahon, the Bears could have won another Super Bowl or two. But the Sayers injury still tops the list of devastating injuries in Chicago sports. Sayers hurt his left leg in the 1970 preseason, had three more surgeries and played in only four more games before retiring before the 1972 season.
And contrary to popular belief, Sayers’ injury hampered the Bears’ playoff hopes in 1968. The Bears had won four consecutive games and, at 5-4, were tied for first place when he suffered the original injury. They finished 7-7, a game behind the Minnesota Vikings, whom they had beaten twice in the regular season. CLICK HERE for our gallery of The 10 most devastating Chicago sports injuries.