Mourning the loss of four athletic icons
Remembering Gale Sayers, John Thompson, Wes Unseld and Bobby Mitchell
Between the deadly pandemic, a nationally televised police killing, protests, counterprotests, cities under siege, apocalyptic fires in a country, if not a world, gone mad, the deaths of our heroes have come and gone with so little fanfare these last months. The scroll includes parents, teachers, laborers, veterans of war, public servants and, yes, athletic icons, some with barely more than a eulogy and never the full celebration their lives warranted.
Everyone has several somebodies they didn’t get to give a proper send-off since March. My personal list includes four men who made extraordinary contributions to the world of sports and beyond, and who also died within 171 days from early April through Tuesday: Bobby Mitchell, Wes Unseld, John Thompson and Gale Sayers.
I’m grateful to have known all four; the first three, at least initially, from covering their careers for The Washington Post, and the fourth because I idolized him as a child and was fortunate to know him personally, later in life.
Each lived long enough — Unseld was the youngest at 74 — that none died, what you’d call, tragically. None was even a surprise. All four had fought serious health issues in recent years. But the death of each was jarring, in part because of how quickly one followed the other and in part because each had become such a giant — three of them in greater Washington, all four of them Hall of Famers in their respective sports — yet still undervalued for the impact they had on countless lives.
It was Big John, when I was in my 20s first covering Georgetown basketball, who impressed upon me (as my father had as a teenager) that occupation, no matter how lofty, usually did not square with obligation when you’re Black. “I’ll never be afforded the luxury of being only a coach in the conventional sense,” I can remember Big John saying, “and I doubt the circumstances of your birth will afford the luxury of you being only a writer.”
One morning back in the late 1980s, the phone rang in my apartment and it was Coach. He said he wanted me to come down to the office and meet him in front of McDonough Arena in his car. I did, having no idea where we were going. Turns out, he wanted to find Rayful Edmond, the notorious drug trafficker who was trying to get a little too close to two of Thompson’s players, Alonzo Mourning and John Turner. I wondered, but was a little too overwhelmed in that moment, what we were going to do if we found him.
Big John drove and talked and I guess I observed. We stopped at a barbershop or two, gas stations, playgrounds, corner stores, the Boys Club. Never found Edmond. But Big John, and it sticks to me more than any of the details of that morning drive, was utterly fearless. This surely wasn’t in the manual on how to be a college basketball coach, but was exactly one of those things Big John felt a moral and personal obligation to do. You think the people assessing his win-loss record that season took that manhunt to protect his kids into account? Edmond, with the word on the street everywhere he went, wound up reporting directly to Coach Thompson’s office.
Unseld did similar things, most of which, like Big John, he kept to himself. I’m certain that John Chaney and Clarence “Big House” Gaines and George Raveling, just to name a few, had similar vigilance to keep. But I know of at least one player who owes his very life to Unseld’s crafty intervention, but probably, to this day, doesn’t know it.
I’ve known dozens of professional athletes, some of superhuman strength, but exactly nobody as strong as Unseld. One day after a media scrum as the reporters surrounding him began to wander away, Unseld wanted me to stay put for a continued chat and gently put his forearm on my hip to keep me from moving. I couldn’t. He didn’t change expression and I felt paralyzed, at 6-foot-2, 240 pounds at the time, until he removed his arm. How else do you think he dealt with Wilt Chamberlain and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and “Big Bob” Lanier and Willis Reed in the post for 13 seasons? Magic Johnson tells the story of his first encounter with Unseld, as a rookie in the 1979-80 season, when he tried to run through an Unseld screen, only to wake up on the Lakers bench with the trainer holding smelling salts under his nose. You know how many people in today’s NBA are as physically tough as Unseld was? None. Zero. Nobody.
In the early 1990s, during a conversation with the uber-talented Chris Webber one night when he was with the Washington Bullets, I asked why he didn’t want to play center even though his skills suggested he could and perhaps should. I’ll never forget Webber’s answer: “Wes Unseld,” he said, “is the center of the Washington Bullets.” This conversation came 13 years after Unseld had retired as a player, and I simply nodded because the answer was both absolutely correct and brilliant.
Today’s players now have zero clue as to how Unseld could average 10.8 points for a career and have been named one of the league’s top 50 players. When Unseld died on June 2, NBA commissioner Adam Silver called his career “consequential,” and it was just that.
Mitchell was the one of the four I got to know best because, besides being assistant general manager of the Washington team, he was one of my father-in-law’s best friends. They played golf together and I was often recruited to tag along. He was “Uncle Bobby” to my wife. Over time, the better I knew his story, he became something of a football god to me, a man who had the unenviable task of integrating a Washington NFL team whose owner didn’t want it integrated.
George Preston Marshall once said on the record to The New York Times, “We take most of our players out of the Southern colleges and are trying to appeal to Southern people. Those colleges don’t have any Negro players.”
They also didn’t have any who, as Mitchell did, led the team in receptions and yards receiving in 1962, despite the weight of the responsibility of being The First. I loved hearing after a round of golf the off-the-record stories about Bobby Kennedy, the president’s brother and Mitchell’s admirer, checking in on the newest prominent Redskin after he was traded to Washington from the Cleveland Browns once the Kennedy administration made it known Marshall would either integrate his team or be forced out of the new Washington stadium, funded by so many dollars from Black Washington taxpayers.
Despite the insults and slurs Mitchell faced (a white patron spat on his shoe in a downtown Washington restaurant the night before his first game), it was being passed over twice for the position of general manager in the late 1980s that hurt him most. Oh, the Redskins stayed true to their colors long after Marshall had traded for Mitchell.
There was a certain professional distance, as a reporter, I was obliged to keep while covering Thompson, Unseld and Mitchell, but there was no such requirement concerning Sayers. I was a kid, 6 years old when he was drafted. My sporting memories, growing up in Chicago, start with Ernie Banks and Sayers. When Sayers’ left knee was ripped up during a preseason game in 1970 (his second serious knee injury and the one that effectively ended his career), we were crushed. I was 11 and felt cheated to not be able, as I got old enough to really appreciate sporting greatness, to see Sayers play anymore. (Years later when my son, then 4, had tears in his eyes when Derrick Rose suffered a devastating and career-altering knee injury at 23 and said, “Dad, you don’t know how bad this feels,” I said, “Kiddo, I’m sorry but I actually do.”) Thankfully, the football gods gave us a mulligan when the Bears got to draft Walter Payton in 1975.
Of all the great Chicago athletes I rooted for as a kid, Sayers was the last I got to meet. Much like Thompson, Mitchell and Unseld, Sayers wasn’t initially the easiest guy to strike up a conversation with. Billy Dee Williams really did seem to nail Sayers’ personality in Brian’s Song. While it’s believed that Sayers and Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at 26, were the first Black and white roommates on any American sports team, it probably never got the kind of examination the dynamic deserved.
Sayers, until issues related to dementia began to ravage him in recent years, always looked 15 years younger than he was. He’d walk into Soldier Field on a Sunday (I had the pleasure of walking in with him three times) and people would whisper, “That guy looks like Gale Sayers … except he’s way too young. Maybe that’s his son.”
One of the many things the four of them shared was the dignified way they entered a room and interacted with people, despite each having navigated the hostilities of a world that didn’t particularly want them before they became wildly successful. The funeral of any one of them would fill an arena in normal times when such gatherings were not only welcome but expected. Losing all four in so little time seems unthinkably cruel. As is, we turned to mainstream and social media, private conversations and texts. Getting out of this pandemic cannot come quickly enough, for a million reasons, among them that if we have to lose such beloved and precious icons, we ought to have the chance to give them the warmest and most proper send-off imaginable.