Though a fundraising booklet promised that the Gale Sayers Center would open in 2008, the charity has not yet even bought or leased property for the facility, which also was to hold a National Football League film library and a 60-seat theater.
Meanwhile, the dismissal of the charity's executive director about a year and half ago and a complete turnover of its board of directors — except for Sayers — has led to a sense of turmoil in the organization.
"We were like in quicksand," said Dean Kleinschmidt, the athletic trainer for the Detroit Lions, who resigned from the board this year. "We never really got on track."
Sayers said he still hopes to build the center and that for the last year his charity has paid instructors to teach classes three afternoons a week at a center run by the Better Boys Foundation, a nonprofit whose board includes Sayers and his wife, Ardythe. Tax records show that Sayers' charity spent $46,224 on the classes in 2009.
Current board members say the charity merely has experienced growing pains and vow it will be a success. A celebrity gala dinner is scheduled for Sept. 25 in Niles.
"We are not an extremely large organization at this point but … we are really trying to make sure that we are doing everything that is important to ensuring that the center is successful and that it is providing the best environment to children," said Erric Byrd, who said he joined the board of directors this year and is its current president.
Problems facing Sayers' organization mirror some common complaints about sports charities: that they don't always spend their money efficiently, fulfill a clear mission or assemble an effective leadership team. Sayers is the latest in a list of Chicago sports stars who have had trouble operating their own charities — Chris Zorich, Sammy Sosa and Michael Jordan among them.
Athletes can have difficulty because they aren't experts in nonprofits, said Sandra Miniutti, vice president of Charity Navigator, an independent industry watchdog.
"Wanting to do good isn't enough," she said. "Just like launching a new business, starting a new charity is complicated and challenging. That's why some celebrities, even (Warren) Buffett, give their money to foundations to manage and distribute, rather than establish new charities."
Miniutti expressed concern about the Sayers charity and what it has accomplished so far.
"We tend to give new charities a lot of leeway. I think it is reasonable that the organization hasn't yet built a massive new facility," Miniutti said. "But at the same time, I think it is also reasonable to expect that it has spent some funds on teaching kids or aggressively building a capital fund to build that facility."
Nicknamed the Kansas Comet for his uncanny speed and elusive running skills at the University of Kansas, Sayers went on to a storied career with the Bears. He still holds records for most touchdowns in an NFL game (six) and in a rookie season (22). Injuries forced him to retire from professional football in 1971 after just six seasons, but in 1977 he was voted into the Hall of Fame at age 34, making him the youngest player ever inducted.
Sayers established a successful business career and formed a computer company, which provides services to a handful of Fortune 500 companies.
His charity, called the Gale Sayers Center, was created nearly four years ago with the stated mission of providing children ages 8 to 12 with a "structured intense environment to better their current education." In his Internal Revenue Service application to become a tax-exempt organization, Sayers outlined plans for a modern facility to house classes taught by interns from top Midwestern universities.
Since then, the charity has reported holding four fundraisers, records show. Donations include $153,056 from the Sayerses, according to a document provided by the organization.
In September 2007, a program booklet for a fundraising event projected the center would open in spring 2008.
Despite falling short of that goal, Sayers was honored by the Robert F. Kennedy Children's Action Corps with its Embracing the Legacy Award in June. The news release for the award specifically mentioned Sayers' center and after-school programs. It goes on to state that "by breaking racial barriers and helping children reach their full potential, Gale Sayers represents the ideals and principles of the late Sen. Robert F. Kennedy."