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'65 Draft Replay? Bears Can Only Dream

by Paul Ladewski
Apr 09, 2013 9:30 PM EDT



If the upcoming Chicago Bears draft turns about to be anything close to the one 48 years ago, they'll party like its 1965, no doubt.

That year, the Bears had the mother and grandmother of all talent hauls. When the ink dried on the contracts, they had signed a pair of future Hall of Famers in Dick Butkus and Gale Sayers, another impact player in Dick Gordon plus nine others who would total 896 games and 17 Pro Bowl appearances between them.

Get this: If not for the rival American Football League, one of the greatest drafts in NFL history would have been greater.

Bears head coach-owner-founder George Halas set the wheels in motion with deals that resulted in three of the first half-dozen picks in the draft. The organization had its own selection (fourth overall), the result of a 5-9 record in the previous season. The third and sixth picks were acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Washington Redskins, respectively. Seventeen additional ones would come in rounds four through 20.

The New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers owned the first two selections, and like the Bears, each was in the market for a running back to jump-start an anemic ground game. The Giants opted for multi-talented Tucker Frederickson (Auburn), who had finished sixth in the most recent Heisman Trophy vote, three spots behind Butkus. The 49ers selected workhorse Ken Willard (North Carolina), the consensus choice as the best power back available.

For the Bears, the decision to select the home-grown Butkus was no decision at all. The Illinois bruiser was a natural fit for a defense-driven team that had been known for its middle linebackers.

There was more internal debate about Sayers, whom some scouts believed lacked the physical strength and stamina necessary at the next level. In the end, the need for speed was simply too great for an offense that hadn't had a game-breaker in years. Sayers had designs on an NFL career, which eased whatever fears the tight-fisted Halas had. The Kansas City Chiefs also drafted the Kansas All-America in the first round (fifth overall), but as he put it, Halas convinced him to sign for “$4.95 and a carton of Cokes” instead.

It wouldn't be long before more than one scout was heard to say, “The Bears had a hell of a draft,” as Sports Illustrated reported weeks later.

In July, Butkus and Sayers gave hint of what was to come in the All-America Game of the American Football Coaches Association, which showcased the top draft picks from both leagues annually.

As longtime SI football writer Dan Jenkins reported afterward, “As Butkus has done throughout his career, he discarded blockers like a man sorting through unappetizing ears of corn, to make repeated tackles. Keying on Sayers, Butkus was the ringleader of an East defense that thoroughly whipped the West's line and made life unpleasant for (its) two main quarterbacks, Craig Morton of California and Jerry Rhome of Tulsa.”

The story went on to say, “Sayers, however, in brief jabs of glory sped into daylight, exhibited his bounding style and left the impression that— once Butkus is on his side — he will give the Bears the kind of runs they have not enjoyed since Willie Galimore's best Sundays.”

The words proved to be prophetic. For nine seasons, Butkus was the most intimidating force in the game, an eight-time Pro Bowler, seven-time All-Pro selection and possibly the greatest player ever to play his position. A five-time Pro Bowler, Sayers scored 56 touchdowns in 68 games and twice led the league in rushing yards. His 30.6 yards per kick return remain the most in league history. If not for knee injuries, their careers would have been longer and numbers even more impressive.

As much as everything fell into place for Halas and company at the time, one factor conspired about them – the AFL-NFL merger was one year away. Until then, the fiercely proud AFL wasn't about to concede anything.

Steve DeLong was taken at the sixth pick, only weeks before the Tennessee defensive tackle would be awarded the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country. The organization had traded their selections in the second and third rounds, after which Syracuse fullback Jim Nance was selected one round later (45th overall). But when DeLong signed with the San Diego Chargers and Nance opted for the Boston Patriots a short time later, two more difference-makers got away. Syracuse head coach Ben Schwartzwalder and Patriots owner Billy Sullivan were close friends, and their relationship played no small role in Nance's decision to sign with the AFL club.

One can only wonder what the Bears might have been with Nance and Sayers in the same backfield. Paired together, Big Bo and the Kansas Comet would have represented a rare combination of brute strength and raw athleticism, an inside-outside combination that would have rivaled the Jim Taylor-Paul Hornung and Jim Brown-Bobby Mitchell tandems before them. A former NCAA champion wrestler, Nance led the the AFL in rushing yards twice and attempts three times. He ran for a league record 1,458 yards in the 1966 season, when he received Player of the Year honors.

Still, there was more to come. Gordon (round seven, 88th overall), tackle Brian Schweda (eight, 101st), tackle Dennis Murphy (10, 129th), tackle Frank Cornish (11, 144th), tackle Dave Daniels (13, 172nd), wide receiver Dave Pivec (14, 185th), wide receiver Frank Pitts (16, 213th) and fullback Ralph Kurek (20, 269th) were the among picks in the later rounds. All played at least one season of pro ball.

Gordon had to wait his turn in a Sayers-dominated, quarterback-deprived offense, but eventually, he would make an impact just the same. In 1970, the Michigan State product led the league in pass receptions (71) and touchdowns (13) as an All-Pro selection. One season later, he made a second Pro Bowl appearance, something no Bears wide receiver would accomplish in the next 31 years.

Think about it: In one one draft, the Bears selected a Hall of Fame halfback, a Pro Bowl fullback and a Pro Bowl wide receiver at one side of the ball, and a Hall of Fame linebacker and Pro Bowl lineman at the other side.

A hell of a draft, indeed.