CHICAGO (CBS/AP)– Legendary Bear Gale Sayers, one of the most electrifying running backs and kick returners in NFL history, has died at the age of 77.
Sayers played only seven seasons from 1965-71 but has a prominent place in the history of the Bears and the NFL. Following a dazzling but injury-shortened career with the Bears, he became the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1977.
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“Football fans know well Gale’s many accomplishments on the field: a rare combination of speed and power as the game’s most electrifying runner, a dangerous kick returner, his comeback from a serious knee injury to lead the league in rushing, and becoming the youngest player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Bears Chairman George McCaskey said in a statement. “People who weren’t even football fans came to know Gale through the TV movie “Brian’s Song,” about his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo. Fifty years later, the movie’s message that brotherhood and love needn’t be defined by skin color, still resonates.
Relatives of Sayers had said he was diagnosed with dementia. In March 2017, his wife, Ardythe, said she partly blamed his football career.
Known as “The Kansas Comet,” Sayers exploded on the NFL scene with the Bears in 1965, running away with Rookie of the Year honors by scoring a record 22 touchdowns — a league record at the time, and still the most for a rookie — including six in a single game, also an NFL record.
Unfortunately, nine games into his fourth NFL season, he suffered a devastating knee injury. Following a relentless rehab, he cemented his legendary status by returning to win the league rushing title in 1969.
“Coach [George] Halas said it best, when presenting Gale for induction at the Hall of Fame: ‘His like will never be seen again,’” McCaskey said. “On behalf of the McCaskey family, we offer our sincerest condolences to Ardie and the entire Sayers family.”
Sayers’ 1970 autobiography I Am Third was the inspiration behind the Emmy Award-winning 1971 television movie Brian’s Song, telling the story of Sayers’ unbreakable bond with Bears’ teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer.
The friendship between Sayers and backfield mate Piccolo began in 1967, when the two became unlikely roommates. Sayers was Black and already a star; Piccolo was white and had worked his way up from the practice squad. Early on, they were competing for playing time and carries.
But when the club dropped its policy of segregating players by race in hotel room assignments, they forged a bond. In 1968, Piccolo helped Sayers through a tough rehab process while he recovered from a torn ligament in his right knee. After Sayers returned the next season to become an All-Pro, he made sure his friend shared in the credit.
They became even closer after Piccolo pulled himself out of a game early in the 1969 season because of breathing difficulties and was diagnosed with cancer.
Sayers stayed by Piccolo’s side as the illness took its toll, donating blood and providing support. Just days before Piccolo’s death age 26, Sayers received the George S. Halas Award for courage and said: “You flatter me by giving me this award, but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. … I love Brian Piccolo and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
At the time of his retirement in 1972, he was the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return yards.
Five years later, at the age of 34, he became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Sayers was a two-time All-American at Kansas and inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as well. He was selected by Chicago with the fourth pick overall in 1965, and his versatility produced dividends and highlight-reel slaloms through opposing defenses right from the start.
“Will miss a great friend who helped me become the player I became because after practicing and scrimmaging against Gale I knew I could play against anybody,” former teammate and Hall of Famer Dick Butkus said. “We lost one of the best Bears ever and more importantly we lost a great person.”
In his seven seasons with the Bears, Sayers was stuck on a handful of middling-to-bad teams and, like Butkus, who was selected in the same 1965 draft, he never played in the postseason. Sayers appeared in only 68 games total and just two in each of his final two seasons while attempting to return from those knee injuries.
Butkus said he hadn’t even seen Sayers play until a highlight film was shown at an event in New York that both attended honoring the 1964 All-America team. He said the real-life version of Sayers was even better.
“He was amazing. I still attribute a lot of my success from trying to tackle him (in practice),” Butkus said at the Bears’ 100th anniversary celebration in June 2019.
“I never came up against a running back like him in my whole career, as far as a halfback. And that was counting O.J. (Simpson) and a couple of other guys,” he added. “No one could touch this guy.”
The Bears drafted them with back-to-back picks in ’65, taking Butkus at No. 3 and Sayers at No. 4. It didn’t take long for Sayers to win over veterans who had helped the Bears take the NFL championship in 1963.
“We were both No. 1s, so they’re going to make it hard on us and show us the ropes and everything else,” Butkus said. “But Gale just ran circles around everybody. Quickly, they adopted him.”
After his playing days, Sayers served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and founded several technology and consulting businesses.
Sayers made the 130-mile trip from his home in Indiana to attend the opening ceremony of the Bears’ 100th-season celebration in June 2019, receiving a rousing ovation.
“It’s amazing someone that was so beautiful and gifted and talented as a player and later in life to have that happen to you is really, I know, tough on everybody,” Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said that weekend.
“It’s tough on his teammates, former teammates. It’s tough on the league. And as a player,” Singletary concluded, “it just makes you take a step back and thank God every day for your own health and blessings.”
He became a stockbroker, sports administrator, businessman and philanthropist for several inner-city Chicago youth initiatives after his pro football career was cut short by serious injuries to both knees.
Sayers was less visible as his health declined in recent years. Before Super Bowl 50 in 2016, it was clear his competitive spirit was alive and well. Asked if he could still stack up against the more athletic players in the modern NFL, Sayers said “you’re damn right.”
Electric. Elusive. Explosive. One of the best running backs of all time. Until knee injuries cut Gale Sayers' @ChicagoBears career short after just 7 seasons. As you can see from this interview we did in 2016, the #KansasComet never lost his competitive fire. @cbschicago pic.twitter.com/fMXIrxuBUE
— Ryan Baker (@RyanBakerMedia) September 23, 2020
In a statement, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Sayers “one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game’s most exciting players.”
“The NFL family lost a true friend today with the passing of Gale Sayers,” Goodell said.
“Gale was an electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball. He earned his place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“We will also forever remember Gale for his inspiration and kindness. Gale’s quiet unassuming demeanor belied his determination, competitiveness and compassion.
“We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife Ardie, and their family. Our thoughts are with his teammates, the Bears organization, the many fans who remember him as a football player and the many more people who were touched by Gale’s spirit and generosity.”
(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)