Sunday was a tough day for NFL fans who cherish yesterday’s stars.
The morning started with a compelling, heartbreaking story by the Kansas City Star, detailing the decline of the great Gale Sayers, one of the NFL’s best running backs. Sayers’ family graciously explained that the former Chicago Bears running back is battling dementia.
In the evening, the crushing news continued as San Francisco 49ers legendary wide receiver Dwight Clark revealed that he is suffering ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
I wanted to share some unfortunate news: I have ALS. https://t.co/RqU0fFT98g
— Dwight Clark (@DwightC87) March 20, 2017
What an awful day of news. One of the best and worst parts of being a sports fan is the nostalgia. Memories can last a lifetime and it can warm both the heart and the mind. However, when these larger-than-life figures show their mortality, it hurts. It hurts big.
Sayers, 73, was a member of the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade team. He was also a member on the NFL’s 75th anniversary team. The Pro Football Hall of Fame member was also remembered for being a key figure in the classic film, “Brian’s Song.” The movie depicted Sayers’ friendship with his backup, Brian Piccolo, who died at the age of 26 of cancer. Sayers was noted in the film for his grace and thoughtfulness. Now, years later, he is dealing with a crippling mental disease that is slowing sapping his life away.
Clark, 60, is a legend in the Bay Area. He of course, is most famous for making “The Catch.” The last-second catch by Clark, thrown by his close friend Joe Montana, propelled the 49ers over the Dallas Cowboys into the first Super Bowl 35 years ago. It began the 49ers’ Super Bowl dynasty years in the 1980s. “The Catch” remains one of the most iconic moments in Bay Area sports history, and Clark remains one of the faces of the storied franchise
I’ve known people afflicted by dementia and by ALS. It’s so sad to know what Sayers and Clark are enduring. It heartbreaking to know what these two legends are going to have to spending the rest of their lives dealing with.
Of course, the elephant in the room is that football could have played a role in both of these superstar’s health struggles. Neither is pushing away from that notion.
Sayers’ wife told this to the Kansas City Star: “Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this has to be on football. … 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.”
Clark addressed the topic in his statement, announcing his fight against ALS: “I’ve been asked if playing football caused this. I don’t know for sure. But 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.”
Sayers and Clark are just two more high-profile examples of NFL stars dealing with serious neurological trauma that has been connected to the brutal nature of the game. Sayers was one of the many former players to sue the league because of concussion issues. Many players, including the late Junior Seau and Ken Stabler, and running back Tony Dorsett have been connected to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE). Like Sayers, all of those men are Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees.
Of course, this has been a hot-button topic for years, and will continue to be. I commend Clark for imploring the league and the player’s association to continue to research these issues in his statement. Of course, there will be no easy cures or solutions. And, of course, the game will go on. Sadly, there will be more heartbreaking news similar to that of Sayers and Clark.
These are the players that shaped our love for the game. What can we do? Sadly, little more than to cherish the memories and hope for the best.