Vahe Gregorian: Former KU and Chicago Bears great Gale Sayers is battling dementia

BY VAHE GREGORIAN, The Kansas City Star


More than 50 years after Gale Sayers, the “Kansas Comet,” inspired awe as a Jayhawk, he was honored in January in Topeka by the Native Sons and Daughters of Kansas as one of its Kansans of the Year.

So this was overdue but due, nonetheless, which is why former Kansas Sen. Robert Dole nominated Sayers.

He has made “Kansas proud,” Dole said in a phone message, and his gleaming smile at the start of the night said that it made him proud, too.

At a table near the front, Sayers was seated next to his wife, Ardythe, as a mesmerizing KU-produced tribute played.

It included NFL and KU highlights, and it featured clips that transcend sports from the movie “Brian’s Song” — the mere mention of which might make macho men of a certain generation weep.

The 1971 movie, starring Billy Dee Williams as Sayers and James Caan as Brian Piccolo, told the tale of the friendship forged between Sayers and Piccolo as they became what is widely believed to be the first interracial roommates in the NFL … even as they competed for a job with the Chicago Bears.

Piccolo died of cancer at 26 in 1970.

As scenes from his life both real and cinematic absorbed the crowd, Sayers sat with his hands clasped, head slightly bowed.

Occasionally, he peered up at one of the screens in front of the room but mostly he stared forward.

From two seats away, you wanted to believe he was averting his eyes out of humility or familiarity.

But the cruel truth is you don’t exactly know what he recognized during a trip in which he asked friends why he was there and on a night his wife spoke on his behalf.

Gale Sayers, who 40 years ago became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, was diagnosed with dementia four years ago, joining nearly 50 million people worldwide.

But Ardie Sayers has come to believe its onset was years before that — possibly even as far back as when he returned to Kansas in a fund-raising capacity for a time in 2009.

While she considers Sayers, 73, physically healthy “as a horse” and notes he is working out with a trainer several days a week, she added, “That brain controls everything, doesn’t it?”

Some of his days are better than others.

On Wednesday, he scarcely spoke during a seven-hour visit by The Star.

But other times, he can hold halting conversations, and Ardie Sayers and friends believe there is a lot happening inside that he just can’t get out.

She tries to pry that loose, or at least prime it, by seeking to engage his mind with anything from jigsaw puzzles to a documentary about Jacqueline Kennedy she hoped might draw out some memories.

That’s why she has been moving him home from a facility he’d been staying in for the last few months, and it’s why she works with him at such things as practicing signing his name.

“I say, ‘OK, come on, let’s fill up this page,’ ” said Ardie Sayers, who also is getting in-home care for her husband. “ ‘I’ll write one, and then you write one.’

“At times you can wait 30 minutes, or maybe 10 minutes. And then he’ll do it like there’s never been anything wrong. It takes a lot of patience.”

She demonstrated that with him on Wednesday, when just before dinner he went to wash his hands with carpet cleaner.

“It keeps you on your toes,” she said, noting the words of a wife of a former NFL player that have become seared into her mind. “ ‘Don’t let him out of your sight.’ ”

Other times, she’s learning to laugh to keep from “crying all the time” like she might want to do, and often she’s helped by the reassurance and support of family and this tight-knit, protective community.

Neighbors and friends at the United Methodist Church constantly offer help or prayers or cards of encouragement, a tendency you could also see in the way people treated him over at Cook’s Pizza.

“They know what’s happening, but you see the attitude they have toward him?” she said. “It’s not backing off. It’s embracing and saying to me, ‘Ardie, if you need some help, you know where I am.’ ”

Ardie Sayers and the rest of the family had made no secret of his condition, but they hadn’t it shared it for public consumption.

But weighing it all again recently, she determined that it’s important that his situation be known and understood.

For one thing, she wants to dispel false impressions people might have had about Sayers over these devastating last few years.

“Other people start making up stories, and people are asking about him more and more,” she said Wednesday. “People must know.”

She also meant that more generally:

For the sake of others afflicted by the same or similar issues and their families, people who need to know how important it is they stay vigilant.

As she learned painfully.

While family and friends were attributing his increasing forgetfulness to the normal aging process, others recognized vulnerability.

Over time, the family came to realize people they trusted had taken advantage of him in various ways.

“You have people who have a little less moral stature than you would like to see in society,” Sayers’ brother Roger said in a phone interview from Omaha, Neb.

Five things to know about Gale Sayers

Former University of Kansas and Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers is the youngest person to ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Jeff Patterson The Kansas City Star

Inescapably at the center of all this is football, in which Sayers became one of the greatest who ever lived only to have his career cut short by knee injuries.

His achievements included a feat as a rookie that took 51 years to reproduce: touchdowns by rushing, receiving and returning in the same game, as Chiefs rookie Tyreek Hill replicated last season.

Football led to a lifetime of adventures for Sayers and Ardie, his second wife, who married in Lawrence in 1973, and the seven children in their blended family.

And it accounts for the ongoing love of friends made in football, from Lem Barney to Dick Butkus to Earl Campbell to Joe Namath to Paul Warfield and many more.

You can trace the game throughout their house otherwise furnished with vibrant, eclectic art, some of which has created by Ardie — a graduate of La Salle School of Interior Design in Chicago and formerly a collaborator with Gibson Greeting cards.

Here in the living room is his Hall of Fame bust, albeit in need of repair after being dropped in a move.

Down the stairs, there are endless photos of him in a Bears uniform, including one with Piccolo on the field and an artist’s rendition of them.

There, too, are the cleats — with dirt still on them — and a football from the day he scored six touchdowns at Wrigley Field in 1965.

The wall behind the bar of his basement commemorates his athletic career in Omaha and at KU, from which he also displays a helmet and a piece of the floor from Allen Fieldhouse.

Then there’s the Jayhawk icon on the back of their SUV, and the Jayhawk yard ornament and his Jayhawk recliner.

“He loves his Jayhawks,” she said.

This was all a long time ago, before his time in college administration and making his mark in business ventures and with philanthropy that continues through the Gale Sayers Foundation and other outlets.

But it also is an enormous part of his identity … even if it likely helped cause this.

“Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, ‘Yes, a part of this has to be on football,’ ” Ardie Sayers said, adding, “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.”

But the dilemma of football, which inspires camaraderie and team spirit in its own inimitable way, is such that Ardie doesn’t hesitate to say she knows he’d do it all over again.

Despite the injuries that took him out of the game early, ultimately leading to seven surgeries and a knee replacement.

And even all this now.

The game led to countless highlights of their lives, including that night in 1982 they spent at the White House with President Reagan and a select few other guests for a celebration of “Knute Rockne, All-American,” in which Reagan played George Gipp.

Such recollections, though, now make for a new point of anguish.

“You build memories all your life, and the next thing you know you don’t remember anything,” Roger Sayers said. “It’s just tough.”

No known medication is going to revive that.

And no compensation will make up for it.

When people tell Ardie “it looks like these players are going to make a lot of money” from concussion lawsuits, she tells them this:

“ ‘What money they get, if they get any, believe me, ask me, it’s going to be for their care. It’s not going to be for taking vacations like people think … No way.’

“ ‘Every dime will be to make sure he’s taken care of the right way and lives as decent and happy of a life as he possibly can.’ ”

Hard as it was to do, Ardie last year grudgingly accepted a doctor’s advice that the best way to do that was to admit him to a facility.

“Maybe it had to be (done) so that I can learn and see what happens,” she said. “ … You learn as you go. Trial and error.”

She added, “I felt like I could do better here — give him more attention, give him more of the things he needs. I don’t want him to be just sitting around doing nothing.

“No, he’s still got a lot going for himself, and I don’t want him to forget it.”

So she thinks about new treatment possibilities, not just for Gale but for all the others now and to come.

And she looks forward to the spring, when she figures Gale will return to golfing and dozens of family members and friends will come to help him … and her.

She has to stay strong, after all, to be able to take care of him.

“That’s a part of relationships, that’s a part of marriage: You don’t walk away from a person when they’re sick,” she said. “That’s when you dig in and help and do what you have to do.

“It’s hard, yes, I’m not saying it isn’t. And it’s challenging at times.

“But then when I stop and think about the people around me and people that are willing to help and family that are willing to come … we’re blessed that way.”

From what Roger Sayers can understand, in fact, he thinks his younger brother by 13 months is probably comfortable and doesn’t realize the pain and heartbreak of all this.

Meanwhile, though, Gale’s smile still can change a room, and his moments of playfulness and connection are moving.

As Ardie spoke of “Brian’s Song” in the basement, Gale walked over to look at a picture of Piccolo.

“If the hands of time were hands that I could hold,” the theme song to the movie begins, “I’d keep them warm and in my hands. …

“Hand in hand we’d choose the moments that should last.”

Now, those words are part of Gale’s Song.

So maybe it’s not too much to ask now what Sayers asked of his audience after declaring his love for Piccolo in a speech in the movie.

“Tonight, when you hit your knees,” he said, “please ask God to love him.”

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868@vgregorian

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