Gale Sayers, the Chicago Bears’ Hall of Fame run­ning back, dies at 77

Marysville Appeal-Democrat - - Sports - By Chicago Tri­bune Staff re­port

Gale Sayers, the daz­zling Chicago Bears run­ning back and kick re­turner whose in­jury-short­ened ca­reer made him the youngest player ever in­ducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, died ac­cord­ing to the Pro Football Hall of Fame af­ter a years-long de­cline in health that in­cluded de­men­tia. He was 77.

The “Kansas Comet,” as Sayers was nick­named, was one of the most ag­ile and elu­sive ball car­ri­ers ever.

“If you wish to see per­fec­tion as a run­ning back, you had best get a hold of a film of Gale Sayers,” Bears founder Ge­orge Halas said in

1977 when he pre­sented Sayers for Hall of Fame en­shrine­ment. “He was po­etry in mo­tion. His like will never be seen again.”

Sayers’ dy­namic run­ning abil­ity helped him earn All-pro recog­ni­tion in each of his five full sea­sons. It also left team­mates, coaches, fans and pun­dits to won­der what he might have ac­com­plished in football had knee in­juries not ended his ca­reer in 1971 af­ter only seven sea­sons (68 games).

In fact, Sayers’ leg­endary ath­leti­cism was a bit­ter­sweet topic at the Bears100 Cel­e­bra­tion in June 2019, as for­mer team­mates tried to make sense of how the elec­tric run­ning back they revered could be the same frail, wheel­chair-bound man who ap­peared on stage.

“If I wanted one (run­ning back) for a sea­son, I’d take Wal­ter Pay­ton. But if I wanted a player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers above ev­ery run­ning back I’ve seen – whether it be Jim Brown or O.J. Simp­son or any­body” said Johnny Mor­ris, a team­mate of Sayers’ for three sea­sons in the mid-’60s.

“He had a knack of be­ing in the air and he’d swing his leg over and come down in a dif­fer­ent di­rec­tion. That’s the best way I can put it.”

Sayers rushed for 4,956 yards and scored 56 touch­downs in his ca­reer. The four-time Pro Bowler ranks fourth on the Tri­bune’s list of top 100 Bears play­ers all-time and fifth on the team’s list.

“I had a style all my own,” Sayers is quoted as say­ing by the Hall of Fame. “The way I ran, lurchy, herky-jerky, I kept peo­ple off-guard so if I didn’t have that much power when I hit a man, hell, he was off­bal­ance and I could knock him down.”

Sayers amassed 9,435 all-pur­pose yards, which ranks fourth in Bears his­tory be­hind Pay­ton, run­ning back Matt Forte (12,718) and re­turn spe­cial­ist Devin Hester (10,196).

“Just give me 18 inches of day­light,” he once told NFL Films. “That’s all I need.”

Gale Eu­gene Sayers was born May 30, 1943, in Wi­chita, Kan. He was raised in Omaha, Neb., and starred in football and track at Omaha Cen­tral High School. He set the state long jump record of 24 feet, 11 3/4 inches. At Kansas he be­came a two-time All-amer­i­can in football.

The Bears drafted Sayers fourth over­all in 1965. Re­mark­ably, it was only one spot af­ter the Bears picked fu­ture Hall of Fame line­backer Dick Butkus, all All-amer­i­can out of Illi­nois.

“Both had un­usual run­ning move­ments,”

Halas wrote in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. “I’ve never seen any­one run with

Gale’s agility. No one ever caught him from be­hind. Butkus was bow-legged. I learned later Butkus had knee in­juries in high school and col­lege. Both had rare abil­i­ties, sup­ported by courage, de­sire and spirit.”

Butkus was un­fa­mil­iar with Sayers be­fore they met in New York af­ter the 1964 col­lege sea­son. They had gath­ered for a cel­e­bra­tion hosted by the Football Writ­ers As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica and Look Mag­a­zine, which pub­lished the FWAA’S Al­lAmer­ica team each year.

“I’m look­ing at this guy with the high-tops and he’s run­ning back kick­offs and ev­ery­thing else,” Butkus re­called at the Bears100 Cel­e­bra­tion. “I didn’t know who in the heck he was, but he was amaz­ing on that game tape.”

Butkus re­mem­bered how Bears vet­er­ans made it dif­fi­cult on their rookie class.

“Gale just ran cir­cles around ev­ery­body, so they quickly adopted him,” Butkus said. “He was amaz­ing. I still at­tribute a lot of my suc­cess to try­ing to tackle him. I never came up against a run­ning back like him in my whole ca­reer, as far as a half­back. No one could touch this guy.”

Sayers set the Bears’ sin­gle-sea­son touch­downs record with 22 as a rookie (14 rush­ing, six re­ceiv­ing and one each on kick­off and punt re­turns). He went on to to be named NFL Rookie of the Year, and his touch­downs record stood un­til 1975 as the

NFL mark for all play­ers re­gard­less of ten­ure

On Dec. 12 of that sea­son, Sayers scored six touch­downs on a muddy Wrigley Field, ty­ing the NFL’S sin­gle-game record. He car­ried the ball only nine times from scrim­mage – and scored on four.

“He looked like he was glid­ing,” team­mate Mike Ditka re­called at the Bears100 Cel­e­bra­tion. Ev­ery­body was slip­ping and slid­ing ex­cept him. It was the most un­be­liev­able ex­hi­bi­tion I’ve ever seen in the his­tory of the game.”

Sayers won the NFL rush­ing ti­tle in 1966 with ca­reer-best 1,231 yards in that 14-game sea­son.

But in 1968, nine games into his fourth sea­son,

Sayers suf­fered his first cat­a­strophic knee in­jury.

The play – “49 Toss Left” – was called in the hud­dle by quar­ter­back Vir­gil Carter. It was de­signed to be run to the out­side of the left tackle. It called for Sayers’ blocker, Randy Jack­son, to lead the way, but in­stead of wait­ing a half sec­ond for the play to un­fold, Sayers in­stinc­tively ran up on the heels of his blocker.

Sayers planted his right leg to make a cut, but

San Fran­cisco 49ers right cor­ner­back back Ker­mit Alexan­der lunged ahead and pounced on his leg.

Sayers was car­ried off on a stretcher as the Wrigley Field crowd gasped and feared the worst.

The play oc­curred right in front of the Bears’ bench, as Halas de­scribed in his au­to­bi­og­ra­phy.

“His hel­met crashed into Gale’s knee,” Halas wrote. “My heart sank. I knew Gale would not get up. I cried with him as he was car­ried off. He was such a mag­nif­i­cent per­son and a great player. What pained me so much was the type of man who had been hurt.”

The Yuba Col­lege women’s soccer team will be out again in Oc­to­ber to help dis­tibute food ne­ces­si­ties to fam­i­lies.

Chicago Tri­bune/tns

Gale Sayers in the first quar­ter of a game against St. Louis on Sept. 12, 1969. Sayers has died, ac­cord­ing to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 77.

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