On Sept. 23, 2020, the ghost of Chicago was gone. When Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers passed away it left a void in the football universe. Reportedly living with dementia in the latter part of his life, Sayers was known for the unbelievable football skills that made him one of the best running backs to ever play in the NFL. He was 77.
Sayers was from Witchita and was rightfully named “the Kansas Comet,” due to his tie-end to the state. As much as his professional career is held in high regard, Sayers’s football days at the University of Kansas were exceptional as well.
Playing running back at KU from 1962-64, Sayers produced 2,675 rushing yards and 3,917 all-purpose yards. He led the team in rushing, touchdowns, and kickoff returns all three years he was in the lineup. An indicator of how dominant he was as a running back, Sayers was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
Once his college playing days were over, Sayers was drafted in the first round by the Chicago Bears where he would play for seven years, the only pro team he ran the ball for.
“Just give me 18 inches of daylight,” he once said. That’s all I need.”
Even though Sayers was a smaller running back, his quick prowess made him a threat on the field as he could slip by defenders with ease. He played so well that he was compared to the likes of Jim Brown and Walter Payton, in terms of all-time greats at the running back position.
“He was the best runner with a football under his arm I’ve ever seen,” Super Bowl-winning coach Mike Ditka said in an article that appeared in Sports Illustrated in 2010. Ditka played and later coached the Bears. He was a teammate of Sayers. He would later coach Payton.
Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, another teammate of Sayers, told the magazine that his commitment to playing in a game and playing during practice was consistent.
“He had this ability to go full speed, cut, and then go full speed again right away. I saw it every day in practice,” Butkus said. “We played live, and you could never get a clean shot on Gale. Never.”
Butkus and Sayers were both drafted the same year by the Bears, which as a rare occasion, was one of the only times a team has selected two Hall of Fame players in the first round of one draft.
“Will miss a great friend who helped me become the player I became because after practicing 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.”
As a rookie for the Bears, Sayers set many records, he gained 2,272 all-purpose yards as a runner, receiver and kick returner and scored 22 touchdowns. His most notable game came on on a muddy field against the San Francisco 49ers, when he made six touchdowns, tying ing a single-game record that still stands.
Sayers’ hard work made him first-team All-Pro his first five seasons in the NFL and led the league in rushing in 1966 and 1969. Although his stats speak for themselves, Sayers was on and off the field many times due to knee injuries. It is because of these injuries Sayers was forced to retire after seven seasons.
However, in those last few years, he was joined in the backfield by fellow running back, Brian Piccolo. Their relationship would be considered odd just by seeing the two men together. Sayers was Black. Piccolo was white. They became best friends at a time when racial unrest was combing its way through the nation. As their relationship grew stronger, Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer.
Around this time, Sayers won the George S. Halas Award for leading the league in rushing with 1,032 yards right after getting knee surgery, convinced by Piccolo to do so.
“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo,” Sayers said in when receiving the award. “Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas Award… 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.”
Piccolo passed away some weeks later on June 16, 1970. He was 26 years old.
From their time together Sayers wrote a memoir that then inspired the ABC movie, Brian’s Song, in 1971. After the release of the film, Sayers retired from football due to another knee injury. His playing days were done by September of 1972. He was only 29. Oddly enough, people would come up to him to ask questions about Brian’s Song and less about football.
While Sayers no longer played the game he loved, he never stopped being involved with the people and community that helped him be where he was in his life. Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the age of 34 in 1977, becoming the youngest to join.
His work led him back to the college campus of the University of Kansas where from 1972-76, Sayers served as an assistant athletics director and was also inducted into the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics Minority Athletics Administration Hall of Fame in 2009. His No. 48 is one of three jerseys retired in the school’s football program
KU quickly celebrated life Sayers when they unveiled a statue in his honor outside Booth Memorial Stadium.
“His achievements on the field are well documented and he certainly left his mark on the KU football and NFL records books, but Gale Sayers was far more than a football player, he is one of the finest men to ever grace our program,” KU Director of Athletics Jeff Long said. “We are so proud of the way he represented our University and the entire State of Kansas.
As news of Sayers passing spread, the Bears, former teammates, and others posted heartfelt messages about the man and the player they knew.
The Bears organization put this statement out on Twitter in response to his passing:
“It is with great sadness the Chicago Bears mourn the loss of Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers. Sayers amplified what it meant to be a Chicago Bear both on and off the field. He was regarded as an extraordinary teammate, leader, husband and father. He was 77.”
Chicago Bears Chairman, George H. McCaskey, had this to say on his behalf:
“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 H. 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.”
“Coach [George] Halas said it best when presenting Gale for induction at the Hall of Fame: “His like will never be seen again.”
Editor’s note: Feature image of Gayle Sayers (left) at his Pro Football Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 1977. Photo credit: Pro Football Hall of Fame