• Thomas A. Wilson

Butkus and Sayers

Updated: Feb 23, 2020

Let me lay my cards on the table. This post is unapologetically about football. Why a football blog when football season is over? Well, it’s not over, exactly. The XFL season is only two weeks old, and the Seattle Dragons are 1 and 1. Since I live 4 hours from Seattle, they’re my default team. A Dragons hoodie would look good under the Christmas Tree. Just saying.

So, now I get to follow football from September to April. (That gives me four months to devote to baseball.) Eight freaking months of professional football—is this a great country or what?

What? You’re not as excited as I am? Well, maybe you don’t know what to look for. Knowing what to look for makes all the difference in the world. Concerning baseball, I once heard someone say, “It’s so boring.” Um, not for me—or the pitcher—or the batter—or the manager—or the announcers. They know what to look for. Real baseball enthusiasts follow the pitch count. They know the strengths and weaknesses of both pitcher and hitter. Believe me, for those in the know, it’s high drama.

But this blog isn’t about baseball.

I can almost see the eyerolls coming from skeptical non-football fans. “Okay,” I hear them collectively drone, “what should we be looking for?”

I’m not going to tell you, with that attitude. You can just go watch that dog-show thing instead.

What? You’re sorry? Okay, then. That’s more like it.

You should be looking for violence and gracefulness, anger and hunger. You should be looking for Butkus and Sayers.

Both were drafted by the Chicago Bears in 1965. Both are now in the NFL Hall of Fame. And neither ever played in a playoff game. Neither man ever made the post-season. The reason these two are legends is that they demanded excellence from themselves and they owned what they did. They played at a level that left some of the best athletes in the world in awe.

Richard Marvin Butkus was a linebacker. THE linebacker. His job was to play defense, to tackle the guy with the ball. According to one of his contemporaries, Butkus didn’t want to send the ball-carrier to the hospital; he looked to send him to the cemetery! He was both feared and respected by opposing teams. Football is a violent game, and Dick Butkus played it well. He took it personally. The other team was trying to take something from him. He didn’t like that. It made him angry, and he played the game in anger.

What Butkus was to defense, Gale Eugene Sayers was to offense. His job was to carry the ball and NOT get tackled. And he did it with such speed and grace that few commentators dare to name a peer. In the open field, Gale Sayers was in a league of his own. He seemed to possess second sight—knowing the location of defenders by “feel.” Even after a knee injury, Sayers came back to lead the league in rushing yards. He played with a hunger to gain just a little bit more yardage on every run. “Just give me 18 inches of daylight,” he once said. That was all he needed.

Violence and gracefulness. Anger and hunger. These are the things that make football worth watching. And these are also the things that make life worth living. Some may balk at my including violence and anger in this short list. But an ancient holy book that I sometimes read says that the violent take the Kingdom of God by force, and the tome also admonishes practitioners to be angry without sin. That’s what I want. I want to do violence to hunger, and human trafficking, and slavery, and ignorance, and oppression. I’m angry about underliving, about lives lived beneath their privilege. I’m incensed that inequality of opportunity relegates huge swaths of humankind to subsistence-survival. And that addiction is a counterfeit substitute for a bona fide life, this too, provokes me.

Men were made to fight. Women, too. Humankind was created to subdue what was naturally resistant to order. And both were made to flee, as well—that is, to avoid the thing that would take them down. Butkus and Sayers.

And we all are still called to live out that high assignment. Why watch football? Well, if not for any other reason, maybe watch it to get a little inspiration on what your life should look like. A life of violence and grace, anger and hunger—that’s how you’re supposed to live.

So, get to it.


Another component of a catalytic life is courage. Courage also has at least three components: risk, resilience, and tenacity. Risk is the ability to put oneself out there. Catalytic men, men who realize their potential, don’t play it safe. That doesn’t mean they are foolish or impetuous, but it does mean that they can leave their drink and ask somebody to dance.

Affirmation of the Week: I get into the game. I get onto the dance floor. I step up to the microphone. In, on, and up—that’s what I do.

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