John Dechant is the author of ten books, including Scoreless: Omaha Central, Creighton Prep, and Nebraska’s Greatest High School Football Game (Bison Books, 2016). His writing has also appeared in a variety of Nebraska magazines.
There’s an old adage, “Never meet your heroes.” You know it?
Careful before you buy it. That’s been my experience, ever since a chance encounter in the summer of 2016, just a month before my book Scoreless was slated for publication. I was on my way to a wedding in northern Indiana when I pulled into the first rest area I could find east of Chicago. It was time for a pit stop and a quick bite to eat.
I stood in line with my brother and my oldest son, who was just two years old. After we ordered our food, I took notice of a gentleman directly in front of me, standing by his wife. He looked about 70. He wore a baseball cap. He was tall, slender, with long fingers and Marine-like posture.
Then they turned around, facing right at me. The number 40 was stitched onto the man’s baseball cap, and his face was unmistakable. It was Gale Sayers. The one. The only.
His exploits on the football field had made Gale Sayers a hero to millions. He was also one of the heroes of Scoreless. And by the time I had completed my manuscript, he had become a hero of mine, too. There was just no way around it. All of his former Omaha Central teammates and coaches that I interviewed for my book expressed that Gale was the consummate teammate. No matter how popular he became, how much press he received, or how many recruiting letters came in the mail, he remained one of the guys.
Throughout my work on Scoreless, any collaboration that I had with Gale had been orchestrated through his older brother Roger, who still lives in Omaha (and who was once a world-class sprinter). I interviewed Roger at length about their upbringing, and Roger was instrumental in convincing Gale to write the foreword for my book. Yet throughout the process, I had never met Gale in person. Ours was just a pen pal relationship, confined to letters and emails and personal messenger. We had solidified the foreword months earlier, so I held out little hope that he would remember me.
As I stood there, holding my son and waiting on my hamburger, I just couldn’t resist. The older I get, the more aware I am of a simple truth: you only get so many at-bats. I wasn’t about to let a personal meeting with Gale Sayers pass me by like a semi barreling down Interstate 80.
“Mr. Sayers, Mrs. Sayers,” I said as politely as possible. “I’m from Omaha.”
That line—“I’m from Omaha”—is like Novocain. It works every time. It’s the ultimate ice breaker when talking to anyone who’s ever spent more than a few minutes in the city I now call home. It worked this time, too, and a minute or so later I took an exhausted breath after explaining how intimately I felt I knew them both, even if we had never met in person.
“Sure,” they both said, recalling the foreword. And they remembered the general premise of my book. As we spent the next five minutes or so chatting, I realized that Gale and his wife Ardie were two of the sweetest, most thoughtful people a person could ever bump into. They were genuine down to their bones. They wished me well on the book. We traded mailing addresses. Ardie invited me to pay them a visit the next time I was in Indiana. Gale even tickled my son and made him laugh. (I think he also caused a wet diaper.)
What a day. As I’ve long said to others, that book found me. Not the other way around. That lucky encounter with Gale and his wife confirmed it.
I was saddened to learn of Gale’s recent death. Bravely, he had been battling dementia for the better part of a decade, and it had taken a toll. Although, I must say of that day in 2016, he could have fooled me. But that’s one of many frustrating aspects of dementia. There are good days and bad days. I must have caught him on a good day.
As I’ve read through other tributes since his death—most of them from people who knew Gale far better than I did—I was struck by how many recalled his humanity. They lauded the way he treated others; they marveled at his success in business after football; and they couldn’t get enough of his infectious smile. The galloping, slashing, runner we saw on the football field at times seemed anything but human. His unique skills redefined what it meant to be a running back. But Gale the person? Now there was a first ballot hall of famer.