“I Am Third.”

– NFL Hall of Famer Gale Sayers

Thanks to a very nice Christmas gift last month, I just finished reading “The Making of a Man: How Men and Boys Honor God and Live with Integrity” by Tim Brown (with James Lund).

It should come as little surprise that I’ve long been a fan of Tim Brown, the last Notre Dame Fightin’ Irish player to win the Heisman Trophy – yes, that was 31 years ago – in 1987.

Brown left South Bend, Ind. to have an outstanding NFL career with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders.

Brown credits his former Notre Dame head coach, Lou Holtz, with convincing him that he could not only win the Heisman, but also play on Sundays.

During a spring practice, Holtz called Brown over to the sideline and asked why he hadn’t been on the field more for the Fighting Irish during his first two seasons. According to Brown, he replied to Coach Holtz that it was a decision by the previous ND coaching staff (the Gerry Faust years, enough said).

Holtz didn’t believe him.

“He yelled at me,” Brown writes. “‘Son, there’s no way a coach could be so dumb as to not play you.’”

As one of many long-suffering ND fans during the Faust era, I’d have to disagree with Holtz’s alleged assessment of his predecessor. Faust was no doubt a nice man, but when it came to coaching at Notre Dame, he was no “very stable genius” like President Trump claims to be.

Holtz told Brown the only way he wasn’t going to get the ball during the upcoming season was if the defense intercepted the snap from center.

The results speak for themselves.

Brown was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2010, along with several others, including former Ohio State linebacker Chris Spielman and former Maryland Eastern Shore (then Maryland State College) halfback Emerson Boozer, who reminded a lot of football fans of Gale Sayers. Boozer scored the first regular-season overtime (“sudden death”) touchdown in NFL history on a pass from Joe Namath in 1974 to beat the New York Giants.

While reading Brown’s “The Making of a Man,” I came across a reference to Sayers’ autobiography, “I Am Third.”

The title comes from Sayers’ belief that “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”

As I read this, I said to myself before turning the page: I would change the second part to read “my family and friends are second.”

Upon turning the page, I read that Tim Brown, to his credit, had already made that same observation.

For those unfamiliar with Gale Sayers, aka the “Kansas Comet,” he played college football for the Kansas Jayhawks, where he totaled 4,020 all-purpose yards over three seasons and was twice recognized as an All-American. In his rookie NFL season, Sayers set a league record (since broken) by scoring 22 touchdowns – including a record-tying six in one game – and gained 2,272 all-purpose yards as the NFL’s Rookie of the Year.

While watching NFL football games with my dad in the late 1960s, I remember the comparisons to Sayers when new running backs came into the league. “He’s no Gale Sayers” was a standard comment from my dad.

Very few NFL running backs – then or now – were close to Sayers.

Mike Ditka was a Bears teammate of Sayers. Ditka called him “the greatest player I’ve ever seen. That’s right – the greatest.”

Legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus said of Sayers: “He had the ability to go full speed, cut and then go full speed again right away. I saw it every day in practice. We played live, and you could never get a clean shot on Gale. Never.”

Sayers also is known for his dedication to his teammate and cancer-stricken friend, Brian Piccolo, as documented in the movie “Brian’s Song.”

Sayers was by Piccolo’s side throughout his illness until his death at age 26 in June 1970.

As fate would have it, Sayers’ rookie record of 2,272 all-purpose yards was broken in 1988 by Tim Brown, who gained 2,317 yards through 16 games – two more games than when Sayers played.

After an injury-shortened career, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 at age 34 – the youngest player to receive the honor. He was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team as a halfback and kick returner, the only player to occupy two positions on the team. Sayers also was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame and his jersey number is retired by both the Bears and the University of Kansas.

For all these accomplishments, Sayers does not put himself first. Certainly not before God. And not before his family and friends.

In other words, “In humility, value others above yourselves.” – Philippians 2:3.

That’s good advice from both sources. And we could use a few more Tim Browns and Gale Sayerses in today’s National Football League.

Rory Ryan is publisher and owner of The Highland County Press.