Speedy Bears RB’s friendship honored in ‘Brian’s Song’
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.
Bears running back Gale Sayers runs for a 28-yard gain against the Los Angeles Rams in 1969 in Chicago. Sayers died at 77.