Author Gary D. Cole became the Chicago Tribune paperboy for his Winnetka neighborhood in 1968. His extended family lived far away, and his customers – especially the elderly residents of the Chimney Apartments – became another set of near relations to Cole. He felt it was his duty in delivering the news to his customers’ doors to keep up with the events reported in the paper. Cole’s memoir, Newsboy, is both an intimate portrayal of his route and a chronicle of the news he tries to make sense of during this turbulent period. Newsboy will be published this fall.
Mom still loved the Browns, but we lived in Chicago so the Bears were her team now. She had been gathering us to watch the Bears’ games on Sunday since before I’d understood the rules of football. I still found it hard to sort out the players careening across the field in a mass of colored helmets, mud-stained jerseys, and flying spikes.
But Gale Sayers, the Bears’ star halfback, brought clarity to the game. His quicksilver cutbacks would lance the blob of padded bodies surging across the field, leaving it in streaming rivulets. With the lightning plant of a bare ankle, he would freeze defenders in grasping contortions and leave them to flail at his passing shadow.
The Bears were famous for bruising, old school football. That was the style of their crusty old coach, George Halas, who had been the face of the team until he retired before the 1968 season. They played in the “Black and Blue” division famous for crushing hits by the likes of Dick Butkus of the Bears or Ray Nitzchke of our bitter rivals, the Green Bay Packers.
But it wasn’t vicious collisions that drew me to the game. I was a runner, and it was speed and movement that I prized above all else. Gale Sayers was a celebration of the joy of moving. His ability to make a momentary feint, then a blinding burst into the clear, awed me even more than our Olympic athletes because he ran in the midst of such danger. His grace on foot defied the brutal violence all around him.
Gale Sayers was my hero. I did not seek him out. He just came out of the television those Sunday afternoons, a figure of wonder working his weekly escape act. Sometimes he would return kickoffs, on top of being a running back. A Sayers return always held the possibility of perfection, an end zone to end zone masterpiece that we would talk about for weeks.
I returned kicks too. Dad didn’t throw the baseball or shoot baskets with us much, but he didn’t need much of an excuse to punt the football. He’d been too busy swimming to kick in high school or college, but he could boom towering punts. He would take me over to the playing field at North Shore Country Day to shag balls for him. At first it was frightening duty, facing spiraling brown bombs dropping from the sky, but I soon got the knack. I would flex my knees, my left foot a half-step in front of my right, and crook my arms in front of me, palms cupped upward, as if I were cradling my new baby sister Nancy. I sucked in my breath and tensed as the ball reached the top of its arc and began its descent. Then it was on me, in my arms, and I was ready to fly down the open field like Gale Sayers. ■