Speedy Bears RB’s friend­ship hon­ored in ‘Brian’s Song’

Santa Fe New Mexican - - SPORTS - By 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 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.”

Sayers was a blur to NFL de­fenses, ghost­ing would-be tack­lers or zoom­ing by 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, busi­ness­man 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.”

A foot­ball and track star at Omaha Cen­tral High School in Ne­braska, Sayers was a two-time All-Amer­i­can at Kansas and was in­ducted into the Col­lege Foot­ball Hall of Fame. He was se­lected by Chicago with the fourth pick over­all in 1965, and his ver­sa­til­ity pro­duced div­i­dends and high­light-reel slaloms through op­pos­ing de­fenses.

He tied an 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.

“I played foot­ball a long time and I never saw a bet­ter foot­ball player than Gale Sayers,” said Hall of Fame tight end Mike Ditka, Sayers’ team­mate from 1965-66. “I mean that. He was po­etry in mo­tion. Be­sides that, he was a great guy. It’s just a shame that he’s gone. He was spe­cial.”

Ditka later coached Wal­ter Pay­ton, giv­ing him an up-close look at two of the best run­ning backs. But the great­est per­for­mance he saw might have been Sayers’ six-touch­down game. Play­ing San Fran­cisco at a muddy Wrigley Field, just about ev­ery­one else was slip­ping and slid­ing.

“He was play­ing on a dif­fer­ent field than we were,” Ditka said. “The field was wet, it was slip­pery, it was kind of muddy. He was un­be­liev­able. He was mak­ing runs and cuts that were un­be­liev­able.”

Sayers was an All-Pro dur­ing the first five of his seven NFL sea­sons (1965-71). But he was stuck on a hand­ful of mid­dlingto-bad Bears teams and, like Dick Butkus, an­other Hall of Fame team­mate 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.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Bears run­ning back Gale Sayers runs for a 28-yard gain against the Los An­ge­les Rams in 1969 in Chicago. Sayers died at 77.

Brian Pic­colo

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