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Football Is Black And White | The Surprising Story Of Oberlin Joe and George Sauer

Chicago Pulitzer Prize winner Ira Berkow remembers the life of George Sauer Jr.


When I read of the death recently of George Sauer Jr., one of the New York Jets’ Super Bowl heroes in the stunning January 1970 16-7 upset over the Baltimore Colts, a story told to me by Cass Jackson, a long-time friend of Sauer’s, came to mind, and I gave Cass a call. It happened that I hadn’t spoken with him in 39 years, or when I went to Oberlin College (Ohio) in 1974 to interview him—at the time, he was only the second African-American head football coach at a nonhistorically black college in the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Jackson remembered Sauer with fondness, admiration, and, well, amusement—especially about what transpired in a touch-football game they played in one day, and with an Oberlin guy named Joe. In the obituaries about Sauer, who died on May 7 of congestive heart failure at age 69, he is recalled not only as an all-pro wide receiver for the New York Jets, and one of Joe Namath’s favorite targets, particularly in Super Bowl III, catching eight passes for 133 yards, including one for 39 yards that kept a scoring drive alive in the third quarter, he is also remembered for having quit football at the end of the 1970 season, still in his prime at age 27, saying that pro football was “dehumanizing” and “fascistic”—“a grotesque business.”

“He hated the system, the regimentation, was frustrated by it,” said Jackson by phone. “But, you know, he loved football. Loved the game itself, even after he left the Jets.” Jackson and Sauer had met in California after Sauer had quit professional football and Jackson was a defensive back coach for San Jose State. Then Jackson was hired at Oberlin, and shortly after he brought in Sauer as a volunteer offensive line coach. “It was his first job after the Jets,” Jackson said, “and he was with us for two years, Did a great job. Sweetheart of a guy. And could he run a pass pattern! It was a thing of beauty.” In this regard, following is the story that Jackson, now 71 and acting head track coach at Monterey Peninsula College (CA.), told me all those years ago, and recalled again.

“I knew George still liked to play because when we both lived around San Francisco we’d toss the ball around in a park for three, four hours and then we’d stop and chat, and soon George would be up and running again, running pass patterns. He was like a kid. He almost wore my arm out.

“Sometimes we’d talk about the pros, and about all he’d say—and he mostly said it with his eyes—was, `I wish it had been different, but it was fun while it lasted.’

“George stayed in shape. When he came to Oberlin to help me out, he jogged five, six miles a day. And he watched his diet. Sometimes he’d have just a couple of glasses of orange juice for supper. And he kept his head in shape by reading Camus or James Joyce.

“I got him.”

“Since I knew he still loved football I thought when he came to the Oberlin campus I’d take him out to play in the local sandlot pick-up game. It was funny. You had to see this to believe it.

“The local hotshots, all of us black, played every Sunday evening in summer. This was serious stuff, although we had fun. A lot of us were high school or college heroes. And I even played defensive back for Saskatchewan in the Canadian Football League.

“We played just below Oberlin hill, with trees on either side of the field. It was a lovely setting, with the sun going down. And maybe a hundred people would come out to watch—wives, girlfriends, buddies, little kids.

“The week before I had brought an Oberlin philosophy teacher, who was white. It was embarrassing, he was so bad. He’d been chosen on the team opposing mine, and after the game one of the guys whispered that I shouldn’t bring back any more white dudes like that.

“During the week, George arrives. I suggest he play on Sunday. He says okay. I bring him out to the field and guys are giving me dirty looks. George doesn’t look like much of a player. He’s 6-2, but he’s kinda thin. He’s wearing a sweatshirt and black shorts and he’s tossing the ball real loose. And he’s wearing his glasses the way he did down on his nose.

“Nobody realizes this is George Sauer. I keep quiet just to see what happens.

“There are about 20 players. Sides are chosen and George isn’t picked. But one of the guys on the other team tells me, If you want your friend to play he’s gotta be on your side. I say, Well, okay.

“I throw the first pass of the game to George. It’s an 80-yard touchdown. Nobody can believe what they’ve just seen, especially a guy named Joe, who was a star defensive player in our games.

“Joe figures there was a slip-up somewhere. He says, ‘I got this new cat.’ The next play we run, George does this fantastic move on Joe. George gets behind him, fakes toward the goal post. Joe lowers his head and starts chugging. George spins around and breaks for the sideline. I put the ball right on the money. Meanwhile, Joe is on the other side of the field. The crowd goes berserk.

“Now guys are on Joe. ‘Hey, man, this cat’s burnin’ you up. Two TD’s!’ I figure now it’s time, I got to fill ‘em all in. ‘This is George Sauer,’ I say.

“The guys say ‘Whooo?’ I say, ‘George Sauer.’ And again, ‘Whooo?’ Someone says, ‘Namath’s receiver!?’ I say, ‘Yeah.’ And Joe pipes up, ‘I got him.’

“So George scores four more touchdowns. We win 60-0. It became the biggest story of the season in the black neighborhood in Oberlin. Joe was a great athlete and he was able to laugh about it, too. He could even laugh about his new nickname. Everyone began calling Joe, ‘I Got Him.’ ”


cst_logo-sqEDITOR’S NOTE: This column is published in partnership with the Chicago Sun-Times. To learn more about our partnership, read this note from our founders.

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