Book: “I Am Third” by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman

I read this book, an autobiography of Gale Sayers, in November and December of 2010. I first learned of this book long ago after seeing “Brian’s Song.” I recall at the time seeing the book for sale at Safeway’s at the Woodlawn shopping center in Littleton, Colorado. I purchased this book through one of Amazon’s partners in 2010 – – it was the same paperback edition I’d seen at Safeway’s.

Sayers wrote this book in 1970, after the conclusion of the 1969 NFL season in which the Hall of Fame running back of the Chicago Bears came back from a devastating knee injury suffered in 1968. Of course, the book was also written after his teammate Brian Piccolo had died of cancer. A relatively small portion of the book deals with Sayers’ relationship with Piccolo. While that relationship was a primary reason I wanted to read the book, I nonetheless enjoyed learning more about Sayers’ background, as well as his own perspective on his experience playing football, dating back from before high school through his professional career. Sayers kept a scrapbook of his football activities, which appears to have been drawn upon a great deal for those portions of the book that chronicle his football life.

Below are some things from the book that stood out to me, or just facts I want to recall.

The Book’s Message

“Taken as a whole, my book is, I think, more than anything else, the story of change – – how it is possible for a man to change from a nothing to a something.” (x)  “As long as I live I’m going to try to change.  Change is an indication of life. – – Rev. Jesse L. Jackson” (232)

The Ghetto’s Lesson

“The fact is I didn’t get anything for Christmas.” (85)

“‘[My father’s] family goes way back to one of the first settlers in Kansas. He had two uncles who were the first Negro lawyers in western Kansas. My great uncle, W. L. Sayers, was the state’s first Negro county lawyer . . . at one time he owned more land in the state of Kansas than any other individual . . . [He] gave my father a chance to be a lawyer . . . But my father had other things on his mind . . . ” (87)

“In 1950 we left Witchita for Speed Kansas, and that was the beginning of my parents’ downfall.” (88)

“And that was the start of the rat race that saw us moving nine times in maybe eight years, and always, it seemed, going from bad to worse.” (91)

“That was the roughest time because my mother left home just when it was at its worst.” (92)

“We took care of ourselves so we never did feel we were neglected.” (93)

“And I know I learned something from that experience, something I probably couldn’t have picked up outside the ghetto. I learned that is you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is you can make it.” (94)

Football Beginnings

“I’m not sure where I got that drive and desire to play football. I know I had it from the moment I moved to Omaha. I think the eense of competition gave me the drive, always wanting to be the best.” (97)

“In 1962 [my older brother Win] beat Bob Hayes in the 100-yard dash.” (98)

Sayers and his friend Break would play ball until 10 or 11 at night, which meant they were not involved in smoking, drinking, drugs, or other problems that others were involved in. (102, 103)


“In college my track coach was Bill Easton, who had compiled an outstanding record at Kansas . . . And it was Bill Easton who taught me about work . . . The first time I went into Coach Easton’s office, when I was a sophomore, I saw the sign, like a placard, on his desk: I AM THIRD. I wondered what it meant. So finally I asked him. He said, `The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.’ I don’t live by it all the time, I know, but keeping the saying close to me helps bring me back, keeps me from straying too far from that philosophy.” (42)

“The only slight regret I have about my college career – – actually, it’s Linda’s regret, not mine – – it failing to graduate . . . Because after I signed my pro contract I started dropping classes.” (159)

The Bears

“My rookie year with the Bears I used to vomit before every game.” (41)

Former BYU quarterback Virgil Carter was a teammate of Sayers. (3)

“There’s no one I respect more in pro football that Dick Butkus.” (39)

Sayers was once drove 110 miles per hour on the highway.  It so happened that Coach George Halas was driving on the same highway at the same time, saw Sayers, and a couple of days later confronted him.  “So I think, my boy, you better get rid of that Corvette.” (203)

“I once had a sticker on my car that read BLACK IS BEAUTIFUL. One of my white teammates saw it and put out the rumor that I was a militant . . . [The] same player had made several other remarks, like he definitely didn’t approve of the younger players associating with `niggers’ too much.” (230 – 231)

The First Knee Injury

Sayers describes his knee injury in detail (e.g., ” . . . it was bent sideways, bent ninety degrees, from the long axis of the thigh,” 4). When Sayers first spoke to the Bears’ doctor on the sideline, Dr. Theodore Fox, Sayers simply told him “It’s gone, doc.” Sayers includes a diagram of his knee in the book (9).

“On February 27 [Dr. Fox clocked my speed and it was the same as it had been before the operation . . . And overnight my whole attitude changed, at least that’s what Linda felt. She said I had become a human being again.” (29)

The account of Sayers’ rehab from the knee injury is very impressive.  Sayers had lingering doubts about the soundness of his knee during the rehab, and would call Dr. Fox for reassurance (“Now, you have to trust me, Gale.” [218]), at times in the middle of the night.  Sayers’ descriptions of how his knee felt during his comeback season, the numerous injections that were required before games, demonstrate incredible determination, because it seems the knee was not actually sound.  Sayers’ teammate Dick Butkus later sued Dr. Fox for malpractice for the knee surgery he performed on Butkus, which Butkus claimed brought an early end to his career (  Whether Dr. Fox committed malpractice or not, the techniques in the late 1960s were primitive compared to those of today, it was enlightening to see what one player had to go through, and impressive to see Sayers’ amazing efforts to rehab and return to play under the circumstances.

The book also includes the reaction of Sayers’ wife to the injury.  She realized that the she had come to depend on her husband’s football success to help her feel like she was “somebody,” and the injury helped her realize her situation.  She recounts how Sayers himself had no self confidence when she met him, all he had was football, and he kept scrapbooks of his achievements.  (236 – 237)

Brian Piccolo

” . . . as much as he was faced with all these tortures, his spirit would not be destroyed. That was the beautiful nature of Brian Piccolo.” (78)

” . . . He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word courage twenty-four hours a day of his life.” (79)

“Brian Piccolo is the the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas award. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow.” (79)

“Joy told us later that he had suffered a great deal the last week of his life.” (79)

“Tuesday morning, June 16, at six-thirty, Linda called me at the hospital to tell me that Brian had passed away a few hours earlier.” (80)

“I think the only thing I remember from the service was one line recited from the scripture: `The virtuous man, though he dies before his time, will find rest.'” (80)

“Well, he gave us all something, all of us who were privileged to know him.” (81)


“All my close friends, the people I like to associate with, seem to have the same characteristics.  They may be opposite to me in personality . . . but they all have the drive that I admire in people.” (135)

Social and Political Issues

Sayers shares some perspectives on social and political issues of the time, and at times tells of his own opinions or actions.

After he was injured, and after the 1968 presidential election in the United States, a boy in the South wrote him a letter that included this statement: “I didn’t want George Wallace to become President because I didn’t want to see you go back to Africa.” (11)

“And in March 1965 I was arrested, along with over a hundred other students, for taking part in a sit-in on campus.” (179)

“The problem at Kansas was the same old one – -fraternity and sorority discrimination and housing discrimination.” (182)

“In 1966 I became co-chairman of the Sports Committee of the Legal Defense Fund, which raises money for legal work for the NAACP.  When I make a speech my fee goes to the Legal Defense Fund.” (229)

“I also work closely with Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket . . . ” (230 – 231)

Adopted Son

Many years ago, as an LDS missionary in Argentina, I had the privilege of teaching a woman who had adopted three children.  My mission president told how much you can tell about someone who adopts children.

“In the fall of 1969, in the middle of everything, we went out and adopted a baby . . . And when people come to the house and they say, `Oh, that’s really a lucky baby,’ we just look at them.  A lucky baby?  We’re the lucky ones.” (239 – 240)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s