Sayers was the ‘essence’ of team player

Hall of Famer known as ‘The Kansas Comet’ dies at the age of 77

The Standard (St. Catharines) - - SPORTS - AN­DREW SELIGMAN AND JIM LITKE

CHICAGO — Gale Sayers, the daz­zling and elu­sive run­ning back who en­tered the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame de­spite the briefest of ca­reers and whose fame ex­tended far beyond the field for decades thanks to a friend­ship with a dy­ing Chicago Bears team­mate, has died. He was 77. Nick­named “The Kansas Comet” and con­sid­ered among the best open-field run­ners the game has ever seen, Sayers died Wed­nes­day, ac­cord­ing to the Pro Foot­ball Hall of Fame.

Rel­a­tives of Sayers had said he was di­ag­nosed with de­men­tia. In March 2017, his wife, Ardythe, said she partly blamed his foot­ball ca­reer.

“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 chair 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 colour still res­onates.”

Sayers was a blur to NFL de­fences, ghost­ing would-be tack­lers or zoom­ing past them like few run­ning backs or kick re­turn­ers be­fore or since. Yet it was his rock-steady friend­ship with Pic­colo, de­picted in the film “Brian’s Song,” that marked him as more than a sports star.

“He was the very essence of a team player — quiet, unas­sum­ing and al­ways ready to com­pli­ment a team­mate for a key block,” Hall of Fame pres­i­dent David Baker said. “Gale was an ex­tra­or­di­nary man who over­came a great deal of ad­ver­sity dur­ing his NFL ca­reer and life.”

Sayers be­came a stock­bro­ker, sports ad­min­is­tra­tor, busi­nessper­son and phi­lan­thropist for sev­eral in­ner-city Chicago youth ini­tia­tives af­ter his pro foot­ball ca­reer was cut short by se­ri­ous in­juries to both knees.

“Gale was one of the finest men in NFL his­tory and one of the game’s most ex­cit­ing play­ers,” NFL com­mis­sioner Roger 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.”

Sayers was a two-time al­lamer­i­can 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 de­fences right from the start.

He tied one NFL record with six touch­downs in a game and set an­other with 22 touch­downs in his first sea­son: 14 rush­ing, six re­ceiv­ing, one punt and one kick­off re­turn. Sayers was a unan­i­mous choice for Of­fen­sive Rookie of the Year.

Sayers fol­lowed that by be­ing voted an All-pro dur­ing the first five of his seven NFL sea­sons (1965-71).

But he was stuck on a hand­ful of mid­dling-to-bad Bears teams and, like Dick Butkus, an­other Hall of Fame team­mate se­lected in the same 1965 draft, he never played in the post-sea­son. 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.

“Will miss a great friend who helped me be­come the player I be­came be­cause, af­ter prac­tis­ing and scrim­mag­ing against Gale, I knew I could play against any­body,” Butkus said. “We lost one of the best Bears ever and, more im­por­tantly, we lost a great per­son.”

In 1977, at age 34, Sayers be­came the youngest player in­ducted into the Hall of Fame. In pre­sent­ing him at the cer­e­mony, Bears founder Ge­orge Halas said: “If you wish to see per­fec­tion as a run­ning back, you had best get a hold of a film of Gale Sayers. He was poetry in mo­tion. His like will never be seen again.”

Butkus said he hadn’t even seen Sayers play un­til a high­light film was shown at an event in New York that both at­tended hon­our­ing 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.”

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. 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-fortv movie was later re­leased in the­atres.

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.”

Af­ter his play­ing days, Sayers served as ath­letic di­rec­tor at South­ern Illi­nois Univer­sity-car­bon­dale and founded sev­eral tech­nol­ogy and con­sult­ing busi­nesses.

Sayers made the 210-kilo­me­tre trip from his home in In­di­ana to at­tend the open­ing cer­e­mony of the Bears’ 100th-sea­son cel­e­bra­tion in June 2019, re­ceiv­ing a rous­ing ova­tion.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHO­TOS

Bears run­ning back Gale Sayers, con­sid­ered among the best open-field run­ners the game has ever seen, died Wed­nes­day.

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