Shortly after Gale Sayers was hired as Southern Illinois University's athletic director in 1976, he reached out to Fred Huff Sr. of Du Quoin, to lure Huff back to SIU as assistant athletic director.
Huff, much to his consternation now, said no. He was ostensibly the manager of the Du Quoin State Fair and he liked running the iconic event and hobnobbing with the likes of the big stars who came to perform, like Red Skelton, Sonny and Cher and Liberace.
Not long after rejecting the offer, Huff's phone rang. It was William Hayes, his employer.
"What are you doing?" Hayes asked Huff, mystified he had turned Sayers down. "Don't you know I'm trying to sell the fairgrounds? I'm going to sell it to the first person who will give me some money for it."
Huff hadn't known any of that. He called Sayers back to see if the job was still open.
It was. And so began a decadeslong friendship that ended only when Sayers, the legendary Chicago Bear and former AD at SIU, died last week on Sept. 23.
"What did I think about Gale Sayers?" Huff said Monday. "I can summarize it this way: I'd go to hell for Gale Sayers if he asked me to."
Sayers, he said, was terrific at promoting SIU and SIU athletics, but he wasn't much into self-promotion.
"He didn't talk a whole lot, but when he said something you knew he meant it and he was serious," Huff said. "I thought the world of him. We traveled a lot together and got to know each other quite well."
It was during one of those trips near the end of the spring semester in 1980, when Sayers, driving ("he always drove") turned to Huff.
"I don't know what you thought you were going to do this summer," Sayers said. "But we have to do something for Mark."
"Something for Mark" became Huff's whole focus that summer. "And we did a hell of a job."
Mark Hemphill was an SIU defensive back who had been paralyzed after diving for a fumble during a game in 1979.
Under Sayers' management, Huff and others organized a summer's worth of fundraisers and raised nearly $40,000 -- enough to buy a specially equipped van that Hemphill would learn to drive, and regain a little independence.
"Gale did all that," Huff says. "He ordered it be done and we did everything to promote it."
The culmination of the effort was the home football opener against Eastern Illinois on Sept. 13, 1980. Hemphill was wheeled out onto the center of the field, as the student section in old McAndrew Stadium erupted into a roar.
"To this day, I can still hear the students on the east side of the stadium, when his mother and brothers wheeled him out from the south entrance," Huff recalled. "It was so emotional. The students starting chanting, Mark! Mark! Mark!'"
It was a hot day, with temperatures over 100 degrees. Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson was there too, and took part in the halftime ceremony. Sayers announced to the crowd that Hemphill's #30 would be retired forever.
Tragically, Hemphill would die of exposure a little more than two years later, when the wheelchair lift in his van malfunctioned and trapped him inside the van, according to St. Louis news accounts. He was in the van for three days before he was discovered, reports said.
Sayers "was a great athletic director," Huff said. "Gale was not the typical textbook athletic director," he added. "But he was a marvelous guy with a heart, and feelings and he did things quietly."
Sayers and Huff were driving home from a track meet at Springfield, Missouri when Huff mentioned that Sayers had been invited to speak at a Cub Scout event in Du Quoin that evening. He had turned the event down on Sayers' behalf, not knowing when they would get home from the meet.
But now they were ahead of schedule. Sayers could have just gone home, but instead he found the church that was hosting the Cub Scout event, and he and Huff went inside.
"That church basement was jammed," Huff said. "It just typified Gale."
Sayers was fired from SIU in 1981; Huff stayed until 2001. He and Sayers never lost touch, and whenever Huff got to Chicago he'd find a steak dinner waiting for him.
"He was more than just a great friend," Huff said. "It's the things we did together that helped make us so close."