James Marshall vividly remembers the first time he had the “Kansas Comet” in his sights.
Marshall, better known as Jim during a long, successful career coaching college baseball in New Mexico, was a football teammate of Gale Sayers at Kansas University in the early 1960s. Lining up at cornerback, Marshall got excited when he saw Sayers heading his way during a preseason scrimmage.
“The offense was running a sweep and I had an angle on Gale,” Marshall said. “I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna kill him! I’m gonna kill him!'”
Marshall quickly learned what many other college and NFL defenders would discover about tackling Sayers.
“I got up, cleaned the grass out of my facemask and said, ‘I’m not doing that again,'” Marshall recalled. “From then on I just tried to contain him and waited for help.”
Now 85 and living in Hobbs, Marshall has nothing but fond memories of playing alongside Sayers, who recently passed away at age 77. Sayers, nicknamed the Kansas Comet for his dazzling blend of speed and elusiveness, became an NFL Hall of Famer despite an injury shortened, five-season career with the Chicago Bears.
Sayers still shares an NFL record for touchdowns scored (six) in a single game, and the highlights he produced on a muddy field against the San Francisco 49ers in that 1965 contest are the stuff of football legend. But Marshall recalls Sayers as a humble, hard-working teammate who typically deflected individual praise.
“Gale was a team player, an A-and-B student and a guy who worked his butt off,” Marshall said. “I remember him wearing high-tops all the time on the field, ankle weights around campus and riding his bike everywhere. He was a helluva football player but it’s like they say, an even better person.”
Marshall, a native Californian, needed an unlikely set of circumstances to become a college teammate of Sayers. He served in the Navy out of high school before enrolling at Kansas, where he played football and baseball.
“My mother always liked Kansas,” Marshall said, “and my younger brother (Bob Marshall) played quarterback there while I was in the Navy. When he found out I was going to Kansas, he told me, ‘I have a pretty good reputation there. Don’t mess it up.'”
Marshall’s time in the Navy left him older than his Kansas teammates and even some assistant coaches, earning him the moniker “Little Man.” He joined the Jayhawks football program as a sophomore in 1960, two seasons before Sayers’ debut.
Marshall was part of a 1961 KU squad quarterbacked by future AFL and NFL star John Hadl that went on to win that season’s Bluebonnet Bowl. Marshall played offense, defense and special teams during his career and had four career carries and eight receptions as a running back.
His rushing attempts dried up when Sayers joined the backfield in 1962.
“After that I got to carry the ball on picture day,” Marshall said with a laugh. “When I played on offense, it was to block for Gale Sayers. I like to say I made him an All-American.”
The assignment had its rewards, Marshall said, recalling a 1962 game against Oklahoma State where he was tasked with opening a running lane for Sayers.
“We ran a pitch play and they were ready for it,” Marshall said. “They had a linebacker and a corner in position, so I blocked the linebacker but the cornerback had a clean shot. Gale made one of his little two-step moves and the guy never touched him. I ran down the sideline next to that corner and said, ‘Pretty fast, isn’t he?'”
With Hadl having departed in 1961, Kansas enjoyed only moderate success during Sayers’ tenure. Opponents often stacked the defensive line to stop the Jayhawks’ running game but even that strategy sometimes failed.
“My last couple years there, I don’t know if we’d have won a game without Gale,” Marshall said. “He was that good.”
Marshall followed Sayers’ NFL career with the Chicago Bears and found it, in some respects, was similar to his college football tenure. Sayers was a marked man.
“Chicago doesn’t even know how to spell quarterback. They never had one,” Marshall said. “The Bears had Gale and ‘Sweetness’ (Walter Payton), two of the best running backs you’ll ever see, but they both got worn down after a while.”
Finding his calling
Marshall stayed at Kansas for a season after his playing career ended, serving as a linebackers coach during Sayers’ junior season. But in 1965 Marshall moved to New Mexico and found his true calling as a baseball coach, accepting a job at New Mexico Highlands University.
It became something of a jack-of-all-trades position as Marshall’s duties went well beyond coaching baseball during his 27 years in Las Vegas, N.M. He taught health and physical education classes, spent 12 years as athletic director, spent several seasons as offensive coordinator for the NMHU football team and coached softball for two seasons — among other tasks.
“That was how it was back then,” Marshall said. “Just a baseball coach? There was no such thing.”
Still, coaching baseball was Marshall’s greatest joy and he excelled at it. His Highlands teams won 384 games and reached the NAIA national tournament semifinals three times. The highlight came in 1967, when the Cowboys finished as NAIA national champions.
Marshall enjoys reflecting on that magical season but accepts little credit for the Cowboys’ accomplishments.
“That team had talent,” he said. “You could have coached that team and won a national title. What I think about more is our two other teams that got to the semifinals. Those teams were good enough to win it. too, but we ended up falling short.”
After leaving New Mexico Highlands, Marshall moved to Hobbs and coached baseball at College of the Southwest from 1993-2005. His teams won 235 games during that span, bringing Marshall’s collegiate win total to 619.
Marshall won numerous awards during his long career, sharing football and baseball fields with numerous All-Americans and future professionals during his time as a player and a coach. None, he said, made a more lasting impression than Gale Sayers, whom Marshall saw at team functions over the years. Marshall said he last saw Sayers six years ago at a team reunion.
“Because he got hurt and his (professional) career was so short, people don’t realize how good he was,” Marshall said. “Gale was such an outstanding person, too, I can’t believe he’s gone. I’m glad I got to call him a teammate for a while. He was really something.”