In Sunday’s paper I wrote about the recent passing of George Sauer, a receiver on the Jets team that upset the Colts in Super Bowl III, and who later lived in Sioux Falls.
Sauer’s death caught the attention of the ‘New York Times’, and my friend Dane Knutson, who is the Augustana PA guy and who knew Sauer well, passed along this essay that he wrote when George died in May.
There was sad news in my morning paper today. My friend George Sauer has died in Ohio.
It was in August of 2002 when George Sauer quit his job at Sunshine Foods and moved back to Texas. We exchanged a number of letters over the next two or three years and several phone calls. He once called me late at night to tell me that he was watching National Lampoon’s Vacation on TV and he was wondering if I was watching. That was his favorite movie. He loved the “Cousin Eddie” character and he often made references to “Cousin Eddie” during the time that we worked together at Sunshine. In the movie Cousin Eddie would refer to his home, a ramshackle trailer, as “paradise”. George would often refer to the back room at Sunshine as “paradise” and he once posted a sign inside the door saying “Welcome to Paradise”.
A great sense of humor was one of the many “talents” that George had. He was, without a doubt, the most intelligent and talented man I’ve ever known. He knew and understood things from medicine and nuclear physics to classical and popular music to Saturday morning cartoons and 50’s and 60’s TV sitcoms. He was curious George in the flesh. Anything new that he read about or heard about he would research thoroughly until he understood it completely, and in George’s case that usually didn’t take long. He was a quick study and once he learned something he would remember it. I was fascinated by his ability to quote lines from prose and poetry that he had read and then stored in his mind for future reference.
George slept in a sleeping bag on the floor of his small apartment because his back bothered him (an old football injury). His bed and bedroom floor were covered with books and newspapers, all with little yellow sticky notes referencing something of interest that he planned to eventually research, but just hadn’t had gotten to yet.
One of the most enjoyable times I ever spent with George was the evening that we invited him for dinner and he brought along his guitar. We sat in the family room after eating and listened for two hours while George played and sang rock and country songs from the “60’s & 70’s. I was fascinated. Here was another example of the diverse assortment of his talents.
But, aside from being extremely smart and talented, he was by far, the most tormented person I’ve ever known. We would often meet for lunch at the Pizza Inn and I would listen while he talked about the demons that lurked in the dark corners of his soul. He would lament the fact that he never, in his whole life, had ever really finished anything. His marriages didn’t last, he had unfinished novels that he had written, he never was able to stay very long in one job, he had moved on too quickly and too often. The one regret that he seemed to not make much of was his short career as an NFL player. He had a six year career before he called it quits. The experts will tell you, that with his talent and the numbers that he put up during his peak years as an NFL wide receiver, that had he had stayed and played out a full career he would be in the NFL Hall of Fame today.
But, most of all, George wanted to be a writer. It’s the one thing that I think, if he would have received acclaim for, he might have embraced.
George Sauer was the most interesting guy I’ve ever known. It always amazed me that, though I had gotten to be such a friend to a Super Bowl hero, I was never awestruck by it. I think that was because of the depth of the man. The more I came to know him, the more I realized how much more there was to him than just a former football star. He was an incredible man who could never overcome his demons. His is a sad story about a man who, I think, wanted to achieve greatness and, at the same time, was scared to death of the greatness that he wanted to achieve.
When George moved away in 2002, my son Eric and I helped him pack up a U Haul truck with his meager belongings. When it was time for him to go he shook my hand and with teary eyes said, “Thank you my friend”. I just said something about writing and staying in touch.
We exchange a number of letters and a few phone calls those first two years after his move to Texas, but eventually the letter writing slowed and then stopped. Then one November day a few years back I tried to call him to wish him a happy birthday and to see how he was doing, but the number was no longer in service. Eventually I tried to locate him via the internet and found his mother’s obituary on-line. The obituary listed George and his sister, Dana, as survivors and through a “people search” I was able to locate her phone number. When I called she told me that George was now living in Ohio and was in a nursing home suffering from Alzheimer’s. She said she knew who I was because George had spoken of me often before his disease had become too severe. I sent a letter to George, through her, and some pictures of me and my family, but she said that George hadn’t recognized us. That was a blow, but I understood.
Now, George is gone, and I say “goodbye my friend” as I wipe a tear from my eye.