Former Chicago Bears star Gale Sayers, and NFL Hall of Famer, considered one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL despite a career cut short by knee injuries, has died at age 77 after suffering from dementia.
Sayers was known as the “Kansas Comet,” and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, despite playing just seven seasons, all with the Bears. At 34, he was the youngest player ever inducted.
“All those who love the game of football mourn the loss of one of the greatest to ever play this game with the passing of Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers,” Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said in a statement.
Sayers was a five-time All-Pro who averaged 5 yards per carry for his career and twice led the league in rushing, including in 1969 (1,032 yards) after having torn the ACL and MCL in his right knee late in the previous season.
As a returner, Sayers was also devastating, scoring six touchdowns and averaging more than 30 yards per kickoff return, with two touchdowns and 14.5 yards per punt return.
A major injury to Sayers’ left knee in 1970 was too much for him to overcome, and he retired in 1971. His career numbers of 4,956 yards and 39 touchdowns on the ground came primarily over five seasons, as he played sparingly in 1970 and ’71.Sayers was born in Wichita, Kansas, and was an All-American at Kansas. He was a first-round pick of Bears in 1965 and once scored six touchdowns in a game.
It was his rock-steady friendship with Brian Piccolo, depicted in the film “Brian’s Song,” that marked him as more than a sports star. The friendship between Sayers and backfield mate Piccolo began in 1967, when the two became unlikely roommates. Sayers was Black and already a star, while Piccolo was white and had worked his way up from the practice squad. Early on, they were competing for playing time and carries.
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. That phase of their friendship was recounted first by Sayers in his autobiography, “I Am Third,” and then in the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.”
With actor Billy Dee Williams playing Sayers and James Caan in Piccolo’s role, the made-for-TV movie was later released in theaters.
Sayers stayed by Piccolo’s side as the illness took its toll, donating blood and providing support. Just days before Piccolo’s death at 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.”
Williams said Wednesday: “My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers. Portraying Gale in Brian’s Song was a true honor and one of the nightlights of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart. My sincerest condolences to his family.”
Sayers was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team in 1994 at halfback and kick returner, the only player named at two positions.After his playing days, Sayers served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and founded several technology and consulting businesses. He was also a philanthropist for several inner-city Chicago youth initiatives.
Our condolences to his family, teammates, friends and thousands of fans.