Many players are good. A select bunch are great. But there are even fewer who are special, and Gale Sayers was one of them. Sayers, who died last Wednesday at 77, was an artist on the football field. He brought a grace and flair to the running back position that remain unequaled many decades after
Gale Sayers joined the Chicago Bears from the University of Kansas in 1965. The NFL was beginning to emerge as a national entity, though it was far from the media behemoth it’s become in recent years. But that first season Sayers scored 22 touchdowns, including an incredible six-touchdown game. Both were league records. Sayers eventually won the league rushing title in 1969, but an injury he suffered that season would eventually cause him to retire in 1972.
Sayers retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in kickoff return yards. He would average over 30 yards per kickoff and 14 as a punt returner. Still, it was his many remarkable runs from scrimmage, and his fakes, cutbacks and maneuvers in broken field situations that made him so memorable. George Halas once said “If you want to know what makes a great running back, just watch Gale Sayers.” The day that Sayers was injured both he and Halas wept together on the sidelines.
But Sayers also made headlines in another way. He and fellow teammate Brian Piccolo were road roommates and became great friends at a time when interracial friendships in or out of sports weren’t commonplace. Sayers would later donate blood to Piccolo and remain by his side as he battled cancer. Their friendship was chronicled in Sayers’ autobiography “I Am Third,” and later Billy Dee Williams and James Caan co-starred as Sayers and Piccolo in the TV-film “Brian’s Song.” It would win an Emmy award.
Because he was still quite young when he retired, Sayers did many things in his post-football career. These included funding inner-city youth efforts and activities in Chicago, serving as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, and even being a stockbroker.
Sadly, he suffered from dementia in his later years, and though that wasn’t given as the cause of death, many feel it was at minimum a contributing factor. Sayers appeared last year at the Bears’ centennial celebration, and received a prolonged ovation. The NFL responded to his death with many tributes, most notably from NFL commissioner Roger Goodall.
“The NFL family lost a true friend today with the passing of Gale Sayers,” Goodall said. “Gale was one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game’s most exciting players. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife Ardie, and his family. Our thoughts are with his teammates, the Bears organization, the many fans who remember him as a football player, and the many more people who were touched by Gale’s spirit and generosity.”
There have since been other outstanding running backs and kick returners, but Sayers still holds the record for highest career kickoff return average. Unfortunately, he didn’t play in an era where advances in sports medicine might have prolonged his time in the league and prevented his knee injury from prematurely ending that storied career. Still, Gale Sayers did more in seven years than most could do in 20, and his five greatest seasons rank among the finest in NFL history. His accomplishments will never be forgotten, and thankfully future generations can see his magical runs via NFL films. They are certainly worth viewing time and time again.