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Gale Sayers (1943–2020), Hall of Fame running back with the Chicago Bears

by Linnea Crowther

Gale Sayers was a Pro Football Hall of Fame running back who was a Chicago Bears legend, playing for the team from 1965 to 1971.

The Kansas Comet

A Kansas native, Sayers played college ball for the University of Kansas Jayhawks, where he was named an All-American twice. He was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1965 draft, the fourth overall pick. His rookie season in 1965 took the league by storm when he had 22 touchdowns and six of them came in one game, an NFL record. He quickly gained attention for his fast, unstoppable running style, which earned him the nickname “The Kansas Comet.” Sayers was renowned for his ability to break through blockers as he ran, famously noting that he just needed a small amount of space to zip through: “Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.” Sayers was named NFL Rookie of the Year in his first season, having set a rookie record of 2,272 all-purpose yards gained. Sayers was with the Bears for seven seasons until his Hall of Fame career was derailed early by knee injuries.

NFL success and injuries

Sayers was invited to his first Pro Bowl in his rookie season, and he’d play in three more Pro Bowls over his seven seasons with the Bears. He was also named to five All-Pro first teams. Sayers won the NFL rushing title in 1966, thanks to his career best of 1,231 yards. Tragically, during a 1968 game against the 49ers, Sayers cut to his left and his right knee gave out. His legendary running style was hampered, but he still came back to lead the NFL in rushing in 1969. It was a 1970 left-knee injury that was the beginning of the end of Sayers’ career. He continued to play when he could after multiple knee operations, but he ultimately retired after the 1971 season.

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Later years

Sayers’ career was short but so notable that he became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, earning the honor at age 34. His jerseys, numbers 40 and 48 respectively, were retired by the Chicago Bears and the Kansas Jayhawks. Sayers later worked as the athletic director at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. After his 1981 retirement from SIU, Sayers became a successful businessmen with multiple tech consultancy firms in Chicago.

Brian’s Song rings loud

Sayers is perhaps most famous for his friendship with fellow Bears running back Brian Piccolo. The two became the NFL’s first interracial roommates in 1967. Piccolo’s career was cut short by cancer, and he died at 26 after only four seasons in the NFL. Sayers 1970 autobiography, “I Am Third,” talked about his friendship with Piccolo and his friend’s tragic death, and it was adapted into the 1971 ABC Movie of the Week, “Brian’s Song.” Billy Dee Williams portrayed Sayers in the Emmy-winning film.

Notable quote

“I had a style all my own. 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 off-balance and I could knock him down.” —as quoted by the Pro Football Hall of Fame

Tributes to Gale Sayers

Full obituary: Chicago Tribune

Brandon Gitles contributed to this story

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