“One was a ferocious middle linebacker, an intimidating and relentless force who possessed talent, aggression and hostility. The other was an electrifying and elusive running back who was a threat to go the distance every time he touched the ball.
The differences between Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers were obvious, but the similarities remain just as striking. The superstars arrived with back-to-back picks in the 1965 NFL Draft, dominated as rookies and became Bears legends who are still revered by fans 50 years later.
Their brilliant careers were shortened by knee injuries, but Butkus and Sayers both ultimately were inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. They even stood side-by-side when the Bears retired their numbers during a Monday night game against the Packers in 1994.
The Bears’ selection of Butkus and Sayers will be featured in an NFL Films produced series, “Caught in the Draft,” which premieres at 8 p.m. (CT) Thursday on NFL Network. The episode Thursday highlights the 1965 draft, while episodes on the next four successive Thursdays will feature the 1975, 1985, 1995 and 2005 drafts.
With the first pick in the 1965 draft, the New York Giants considered Butkus before choosing Auburn’s Tucker Frederickson “because he is the best all-around fullback in the country,” Giants vice president Wellington Mara said at the time.
After the San Francisco 49ers selected North Carolina running back Ken Williard, the Bears chose Butkus third with a pick they had acquired in a trade with the Pittsburgh Steelers and Sayers fourth with the selection they had received after finishing 5-9 in 1964.
After the Dallas Cowboys drafted California quarterback Craig Morton fifth overall, the Bears chose Tennessee defensive lineman Steve DeLong at No. 6 with a pick they had acquired from the Washington Redskins.
“As far as we’re concerned, we got the No. 1, 2 and 3 college football players in the country,” said Bears president George “Mugs” Halas Jr., the son of the legendary Bears founder and owner. “We would have been happy if two of the three had been left for us.”
“It was like holding an idiot’s hand in gin rummy,” said another staff member.
The Bears’ 1965 draft class also included seventh-round selection Dick Gordon, a Michigan State running back who developed into a two-time Pro Bowl wide receiver in Chicago.
DeLong opted to sign with the rival American Football League and played his first seven pro seasons with the San Diego Chargers before finally joining the Bears for one year in 1972.
Chicago’s other two first-round picks, however, became immediate stars.
Sayers, who set an NFL record with 22 touchdowns and tied another mark by scoring six TDs in a remarkable performance against the 49ers, edged Butkus for Rookie of the Year honors.
Sayers came to the Bears after starring at the University of Kansas. In Sayers, the Bears were hoping that they had drafted a breakaway successor to the late Willie Galimore, a star running back who had been killed in an automobile accident the previous summer at training camp.
“I’ve looked at Sayers in 12 games and he has some moves that even Willie didn’t,” Bears assistant coach George Allen said at the time. “And he’s a track man, too—a hurdler. This is an indication that he has something more than just straight-ahead speed.”
Kansas athletic director Wade Stinson told the Chicago Tribune that “Sayers is the best broken field runner I’ve ever seen. He’ll show you moves you haven’t seen yet.”
Forced to retire after a second knee injury, Sayers set 23 club records and seven NFL marks during seven seasons with the Bears. He was selected to five Pro Bowls and was named Offensive MVP in three of the games.
In 1977, at the age of 34, Sayers became the youngest man ever inducted into the Hall of Fame. His effective playing time is also the shortest of any Hall of Famer.
Butkus, meanwhile, remains one of the greatest defensive players in NFL history. He was selected to eight Pro Bowls in nine seasons and set a Bears record with 47 takeaways (25 fumble recoveries and 22 interceptions).
With the fledgling AFL boosted by a lucrative television contract with NBC, the NFL faced stiff competition to sign players that were drafted by both leagues. Butkus was also chosen by the Denver Broncos, an AFL franchise that was rumored to be preparing to relocate to Chicago.
George Halas was confident that the Bears would be able to sign the Chicago native.
“We’ve been after Butkus ever since last year when he led Illinois to the Big Ten title,” the Bears coach said after the draft. “We’ve got to have him. He’s a great one.”
The NFL and AFL merged in 1970, but there was acrimony between the leagues in 1965. The NFL accused the AFL of holding a secret draft two weeks earlier to try to get a jump on signing the top prospects. NBC even sent letters to the players encouraging them to join the AFL.
Believe it or not, Butkus was actually worried about insulting one of the teams that drafted him.
“I hate to make a decision,” he said at the time. “I don’t want to hurt anybody. Regardless of which one I pick, I’ll make the other one mad. I don’t want anybody to be mad at me.” ”