NFL Hall of Famer Sayers dies at age 77
Bears star known too for ‘Brian’s Song’
Gale Sayers, a Hall of Fame football star with the Chicago Bears who found a wider fame through his friendship with a cancer-stricken teammate, depicted in the poignant television movie “Brian’s Song,” died Wednesday. He was 77.
His death was announced by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, which did not say where or how he died. His wife, Ardythe, told the Kansas City Star in 2017 that Sayers had dementia, a diagnosis that she attributed in part to hits he took as a player.
Sayers, a Wichita, Kansas, native who became known as “the Kansas Comet,” left an indelible mark on the NFL despite injuries that effectively limited him to five seasons and only 68 games. In the history of the sport, few players seemed to match his ability to escape from tackles, hurdle defenders and find a way into the end zone.
“Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need,” he once said.
A two-time All-American at the University of Kansas, Sayers had
one of the greatest debuts in pro football history after being drafted by the Bears in 1965. In his rookie season, he scored 22 touchdowns — including six on a muddy field against the San Francisco 49ers, tying a single-game record — and gained 2,272 all-purpose yards, as a runner, receiver and kick returner.
He was named a first-team all-pro in each of his first five seasons, led the NFL in rushing in 1966 and again in 1969, and became the youngest player inducted into the Hall of Fame, at age 34 in 1977. He had by then retired after seven seasons, his playing career cut short by knee injuries.
While injured, he was often replaced in the Bears’ backfield by Brian Piccolo, who began to show signs of fatigue in 1969 before being diagnosed with cancer. The two became roommates during the Bears’ road trips, creating an interracial friendship unusual for the time. Sayers, who was Black, wore No. 40; Piccolo, who was White, was No. 41.
When Sayers received an award for courage, after coming back from injuries in 1969, he said, “You flatter me by giving me this award, but I 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.”
Sayers was often at Piccolo’s side until he died at 26 in 1970. Sayers wrote about their friendship in a 1970 memoir, “I Am Third,” co-written with Al Silverman, which was the basis for the movie “Brian’s Song,” which premiered on ABC the next year starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers.
“I always sort of equated his running style to ballet — Nijinsky,” Williams said of Sayers in an NFL Films production. “He had that kind of beauty. I loved watching him run. It was poetry.”
Chicago running back Gale Sayers, who has died at 77, runs for a 28-yard gain against the Los Angeles Rams on Oct. 27, 1969. Sayers reportedly had dementia from taking hits as a football player.