When Gale Sayers was Southern Illinois' athletic director in 1976-81, one of his favorite ways to relieve stress was to slip away from the business world and set up shop at a nearby lake.
"I did a lot of fishing then," Sayers said.
Bluegill, bass and crappie, one of the greatest and most popular of Bears caught them all on a tour of Carbondale-area lakes and ponds.
"I went out every time I got a chance," he said.
Sayers was a star attraction at the grand opening of an outdoors store recently and the line of autograph-seekers wound around boats, fishing rods, bait and camouflage attire, from one end to the other of the 140,000-square-foot store. Signature-seekers wore Bears insignia shirts and jackets on their bodies and clutched new fishing equipment in their hands.
Before the opening ceremony, Sayers inspected the store's 18,000-gallon fish tank. Some of the fish had to look as edible as the ones he used to eat in his prime fishing days. Alas, fishing is prohibited in the store and these species were on display as a museum-type exhibit.
Sayers, who will turn 64 at the end of May, had a brilliant-but-brief NFL career, joining the Bears in 1965 along with Dick Butkus. Before his career was curtailed by knee injuries, Sayers electrified fans around the league with his elusive running style.
As a 6-foot, 198-pound halfback, Sayers rushed for 1,231 yards in 1966 and 1,032 in 1969, while compiling a lifetime average of 5.0 yards per carry. Sayers also was very much a receiving threat (34 grabs in one year) and a spectacular kick returner, bringing one back 103 yards. Sayers scored 20 touchdowns as a rookie and once scored six touchdowns in a single game.
Because his career was truncated and he retired at 29, Sayers became the youngest inductee into the Pro Football Hall of Fame 1977. That accomplishment thrills him still.
"I only played 68 games," Sayers said. "Really, it was just 4 ½ years. And I got in on my first (year of eligibility) anyway. There's no doubt that is the highlight of my career."
Sayers' uncanny balance running and cutting through mud on soggy football fields was not his sole connection to the outdoors.
Sayers went to high school in Wichita, Kan., leading him to Kansas University - in fact he was wearing a Jayhawks pin on his jacket while talking. But when he was a kid, Sayers' family lived in Omaha. His father, Roger, brought him pheasant and rabbit hunting in Nebraska and taught him how to shoot the guns needed.
"I can shoot," Sayers said. "A lot of times that's all we had for dinner."
Sayers, who has run a computer supply company in the Chicago area for 23 years, is lean and seems in sufficient shape to slog through fields and tall grasses where those pheasants or rabbits might hide today.
Sayers didn't pick up fishing for sport until after his football career ended. While working as an assistant athletic director at Kansas, he had a friend who was tremendously passionate about fishing and Sayers joined him sometimes.
His interest blossomed at Southern Illinois, however, with a neighbor's prodding.
"He taught me how to fish and I fished every chance I got for five years," Sayers said. "I relaxed at it. We had a good time, drank a little beer."
Once, fishing on a southern Illinois lake, Sayers cast too violently and his rod and reel flew out of his hand and fell into the water. Sayers sadly watched it drift on the surface, convinced his gear was a goner. But before the mourning period was far along, Sayers was stunned to see his partner cast perfectly, hook the runaway rod and reel it back to the boat.
"He was so good that he got it," Sayers said.
Sayers is so busy with his business, following the Bears and charitable work that he doesn't have time to fish these days, even with a back yard of Lake Michigan and its perch and salmon delights.
"I'm not a Lake Michigan fan," Sayers said. "It's trolling. I like to bait cast."
Oh yeah, there is one more obstacle to Sayers' cruising the great lake - he gets seasick. But there are more benign lakes in the Chicago area and Sayers sounded as if he may be hearing the call of the wild loudly enough to renew his fishing career.
"I might start again," Sayers said.
Just one piece of advice - hang onto the rod with two hands.