Gale Sayers and Dick Butkus deserved better.
Nine years before the Steelers turned in the greatest draft in NFL history-drafting future Hall-of-Famers Lynn Swann, John Stallworth, Mike Webster and Jack Lambert- the Chicago Bears drafted two Hall-of-Famers in consecutive picks in the first round of the 1965 Draft. The only two Hall-of-Famers in the '65 Draft, Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus and Kansas running back Gale Sayers, were drafted third and fourth overall, respectively.
Together, the duo of Sayers and Butkus enjoyed stellar careers. Appropriately nicknamed the Kansas Comet, Sayers still holds records for touchdowns scored as a rookie and scoring the most touchdowns in a game, when he scored six against the 49ers during his magical rookie season. Butkus earned the moniker as one of the scariest, nastiest players in NFL history during his nine-year reign as the heart of the Bears defense.
It was joy to watch Sayers' graceful runs and Butkus' forceful hits highlighted in NFL Network's "A Football Life: Dick Butkus & Gale Sayers" earlier this week. I can't imagine what it would have been like to watch them at their apex a half century ago.
I also wonder what it would have been like to watch them in the playoffs, something Butkus and Sayers never did in their combined 16 NFL seasons. In fact, the Bears 9-5 record in their rookie seasons would be the best record Chicago would tally during their era.
The Steelers '74 class, however, enjoyed a complete opposite fate. They were at the center of Pittsburgh's glory years in the 1970's, and each one made several key plays in the playoffs to help the Steelers win four Super Bowls in six seasons. The Steelers utlized the players from the '74 Draft (I'd be remiss not to mention should-be HOFer Donnie Shell was also acquired in the '74 offseason and played a key role in the Steelers' success during his 14-year career), blending their talents with other gifted players in creating arguably the strongest team ever assembled.
Watching their highlights, I couldn't help but think about what great Steelers Sayers and Butkus would have been. Butkus' fiery spirit and physical play would have fit right in with the 70's Steelers defense, while Sayers dashing, game breaking ability could have complimented Franco's cutback running. But above their football attributes, what would have made Butkus and Sayers great Steelers was their desire to win. Both players said in the documentary they would have traded every one of their individual awards for a championship, and you believe them after watching the tenacity in which they played their positions. That passion would have been embraced by Joe Greene and Chuck Noll, who helped infuse that way of thinking into each member of the 70's Steelers.
The Bears never did surround Butkus and Sayers with such talent, and you can tell it bothers them that they never played on a great team. Watching the two talk some 40-odd years after their careers ended, it gave me perspective just how special championship teams are, especially ones like the 70's and 2000's Steelers that were strong enough to compete for and win multiple championships. While it's easy to forget, being that we cheer for the team with the most Lombardi Trophies, it's hard to win championships, and when it happens, the teams and players should be appreciated for their accomplishment. It's also important as fans to enjoy those moments, because you never know if, and when, they'll come around again.