Seattle Seahawks

Call Seahawks rookie Lockett ‘The Kansas Rocket’

Watching Seahawks rookie Tyler Lockett, second from right, returns a punt for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday brought back memories for columnist John McGrath of another speedster who came to the NFL via Kansas.
Watching Seahawks rookie Tyler Lockett, second from right, returns a punt for a touchdown against the San Diego Chargers on Saturday brought back memories for columnist John McGrath of another speedster who came to the NFL via Kansas. The Associated Press

For a split second Saturday night, I saw Gale Sayers again.

The uniform didn’t look the same — he was wearing a white Seattle Seahawks jersey and dark blue pants with neon-green trim — and the number had changed. Sayers was No. 40; now he was No. 16.

But when Tyler Lockett changed directions en route to a 67-yard touchdown return of a punt, implicitly eluding pursuit as if he were a magnet repelling the force of 11 opposing magnets, that was Gale Sayers during his rookie season with the Chicago Bears.

It had been 50 years almost to the day — Aug. 28, 1965 — since Sayers made his de facto NFL debut during an exhibition game against the Rams. He ran back a punt for a 77-yard score, ran back a kickoff for a 93-yard score, and produced a third score by throwing a 25-yard touchdown pass. Left handed.

His coach, George Halas, couldn’t recall seeing anybody like him, an observation that carried some weight: Halas was present at the creation of the NFL.

“He doesn’t look any different coming at you,” 49ers defensive back George Donnelly once said of Sayers. “But when he gets there, he’s gone.”

Same with Lockett. When it appears he’s within reach of a tackler, he’s gone. Anticipating him to explain precisely why he zigs left instead of right, or right instead of left, is fruitless. It’s like asking Sonny Rollins to explain one of his improvised riffs on the sax.

“It’s just reacting,” Lockett said after his touchdown salvaged the Seahawks’ otherwise lackluster performance against the San Diego Chargers.

We’re three dates into the preseason — all that remains is a final dress rehearsal Thursday night when the starters will make a short cameo appearance — and the only intriguing development of the summer has been Lockett’s emergence as a 2015 version of Gale Sayers.

Comparisons between a third-round draft choice and the Hall of Famer regarded to be the most exciting open-field runner in NFL history are probably premature. OK, they’re definitely premature. Nobody should expect Lockett to score a rookie-record 22 touchdowns, as Sayers did in 1965.

And yet, comparisons are inevitable. Sayers dazzled collegiately at Kansas, in the conference then known as the Big 8. Lockett starred at Kansas State, in the conference now known as the Big 12. Sayers was famous for his uncanny sense on when and where to change direction in concert with his blockers. Lockett’s sense is equally uncanny.

Football fans admire the bruisers — thinking here of Marshawn Lynch — who’d rather plow into an opponent for an extra half-yard along the sideline than seek refuge out of bounds. Thanks to his appetite for contact, Lynch embodies the heart and soul of a team seeking an unprecedented third consecutive NFC championship.

But acrobats more prone to avoid tackles than break them are just as compelling. Sayers played football as if a two-hand touch counted as a stop. So does Lockett.

The Seahawks’ special-teams return units last season were ineffective, and that’s putting it charitably. The longest kick return was Paul Richardson’s 47-yard scamper; the longest punt return was a 38-yard effort from Doug Baldwin.

On the 36 occasions the Hawks accepted a punt, the typical return found Bryan Walters calling for a fair catch. Give Walters this much: His job called for him to resist any notion of expanding a repertoire that began, and ended, with him assuring there wouldn’t be a turnover.

Lockett will be given the freedom to take the ball and run with it. Stay tuned for highlights at 11 p.m.

Which reminds me of Sayers, whose six-touchdown afternoon against San Francisco on Dec. 12, 1965, concluded with an 85-yard punt return that was in the books before he reached midfield. One tackler whiffed, another was juked out, and “The Kansas Comet” was off to the races. Sort of. He peeked behind him, saw nobody giving chase, and jogged the last 30 yards.

Sayers didn’t spike the ball when he reached the goal line, as this was 1965, a few years before the Chiefs’ Elmo Wright pioneered the celebratory touchdown dance. Sayers merely tossed the ball over his head, as if to say: “That’s all, folks!”

Lockett’s reaction Saturday was similarly low key. He scored, let go of the ball, and comported himself as somebody who’s familiar with the end zone.

Another comet from the state of Kansas, almost 50 years to the day after the first one arrived. For those of us who marveled at Gale Sayers, the dots just so connect.