clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Gale Sayers, ‘Kansas Comet’ and Bears legend, dies at 77

Though other great running backs were more prolific — Jim Brown before him and Walter Payton after him, among others — there rarely if ever has been a weapon as dangerous from anywhere on a football field as Sayers.

Bears legend Gale Sayers died Wednesday at age 77.
Bears legend Gale Sayers died Wednesday at age 77.
CST

Former Bears running back Gale Sayers, the “Kansas Comet” whose dazzling moves and breakaway speed made him the most dangerous runner in football in the 1960s and earned him Hall of Fame honors despite playing in just 68 games because of injuries, died Wednesday at age 77. He had been diagnosed with dementia in 2012, his wife, Ardythe, announced in 2017.

The Pro Football Hall of Fame announced his death.

Though other great running backs were more prolific — Jim Brown before him and Walter Payton after him, among others — there rarely if ever has been a weapon as dangerous from anywhere on a football field as Sayers. He scored 56 touchdowns in 64 games over his first five seasons in the NFL from 1965-69 — 39 rushing, nine receiving, six on kickoff returns and two on punt returns. He also threw a touchdown pass.

“Give me 18 inches of daylight, that’s all I need,” Sayers famously said early in his career.

More than 50 years after his final full season of 1969, Sayers remains the standard of big-play threats in the NFL. He scored 18 touchdowns of 50 yards or more in his first 45 games in the NFL, including a 103-yard kickoff return, 85-yard punt return, 80-yard pass reception and a 61-yard rush.

In his first four seasons in the NFL (50 games), Sayers set eight NFL records, including career rushing average (5.3 yards), total offense in a season (2,440 yards in 1966) and touchdowns in a season (22 in 1965) — and tied the NFL record for touchdowns in a game (six in 1965). He tied Ollie Matson’s NFL record of six kickoff return touchdowns — in just 56 attempts in his first three seasons.

“I played with Gale,” former Bears wide receiver Johnny Morris said in 2019 at the Bears convention celebrating the team’s 100th season. “I covered Payton [as a sportscaster/announcer] and I’ve covered a lot of guys over the years. If I wanted one player for a season, I’d take Walter Payton. But if I wanted a player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers — above every running back I’ve seen, whether it be Jimmy Brown or O.J. Simpson.

“For one play, there’s nobody that was quicker and could cut. He had a knack of being able to cut, be in the air and swing his leg over the other leg and come down going in a different direction. That’s the best way I could put it — if I wanted a player for one play, I’ll take Gale Sayers.”

An All-America running back at Kansas, Sayers was drafted fourth overall (the Bears took linebacker Dick Butkus third overall the same year) and was an immediate sensation as a rookie in 1965. He set an NFL rookie record with 22 touchdowns — 14 rushing, six receiving, one on a punt return and one on a kickoff return.

The highlight of that rookie season was a magnificent performance against the 49ers in the muck at Wrigley Field on Dec. 12, 1965, when he tied an NFL record with six touchdowns, including a 50-yard rush, an 80-yard reception on a screen pass and an 85-yard punt return. Sayers had 336 all-purpose yards on just 16 touches in that game — nine carries for 113 yards; two receptions for 89 yards and five punt returns for 134 yards.

“He was unbelievable, I’m telling you,” former Bears tight end Mike Ditka said at the Bears100 convention in 2019. “There’s [nobody] like him. … He was unbelievable. I was there. The field was muddy! It didn’t bother him. He looked like he was gliding. Everybody was slipping and sliding, except him. It was the most unbelievable exhibition I’ve ever seen in the history of the game.”

Regrettably, Sayers’ brilliant NFL career played out like a greek tragedy. At the height of his powers at 26 in 1968 — coming off games in which he rushed for 143 yards against the Vikings and 205 against the Packers — Sayers suffered a devastating, season-ending right knee injury when he was hit by 49ers cornerback Kermit Alexander in a 27-19 Bears victory at Wrigley Field. He was replaced by Brian Piccolo.

Though the hit was clean, a disconsolate Alexander was devastated by the impact of it.

“God, you never want to hurt a player, never — especially a player like Gale. But it was my fault,” Alexander told reporters after the game. “Gale likes to run behind his blocker and slip off when the defensive man comes after him. I wasn’t going after Sayers. I was going after the blocker [tackle Randy Jackson]. I submarined, missed the blocker and hit the leg. That was it. I hit the leg.”

Sayers suffered “a complete rupture of all ligaments on the inner side” of his right knee and torn cartilage, according to Dr. Ted Fox, the team physician, and underwent knee surgery the night of the game. He not only returned for the start of the 1969 season, but remarkably led the league in rushing after a slow start — with 1,032 yards on a career-high 236 carries — and scored eight touchdowns. But much of the Sayers magic was gone. His longest rush was 28 yards (he had at least one 50-yard carry in his first four seasons). His yards per carry dropped from a league-leading 6.2 to 4.4 (though it was 4.8 yards per carry and 90 yards per game in his final nine games).

After suffering an injury to his left knee in the preseason in 1970, Sayers played in only two games before undergoing another surgery. He played in two games in 1971 and after yet another surgery was a shell of himself in the 1972 preseason and retired at 29 — one day after losing fumbles on two of three carries in an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium.

But Sayers’ impact on the NFL in just five seasons was immense. He was named to the All-Pro team in each season. In four Pro Bowl appearances, he was named the outstanding offensive player three times. At the time of his retirement, he held at least a share of nine NFL records and 16 Bears franchise records. He was voted the greatest running back in the first 50 years of the NFL.

“If you wish to see perfection as a running back, you had best get a hold of a film of Gale Sayers,” Bears owner George Halas said at Sayers’ Hall of fame enshrinement in 1977. “He was poetry in motion. His like will never be seen again.”

Sayers still holds the NFL record for touchdowns by a rookie with 22 in 1965 and career kickoff return average (30.6 yards). He still is tied for the NFL record of six touchdowns in a game — the last player to accomplish that feat. He still holds Bears franchise records of touchdowns in a season (22 in 1965), in a game (six), all-purpose yards in a season (2,440 in 1966) and a game (339 in 1966) and kickoff return touchdowns in a career (six). His 103-yard kickoff return is still the longest in franchise history.

Gale Sayers, along with other Bears Hall of Famers, is honored at Soldier Field in 2016.
Gale Sayers, along with other Bears Hall of Famers, is honored at Soldier Field in 2016.
Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Sayers was born in Wichita, Kansas, but grew up in Omaha, Nebraska. He was a star athlete at Omaha Central High School — his older brother Roger was a national champion sprinter at Omaha University who beat future Olympic gold medalist Bob Hayes in the 100-yard dash in college. Gale was a two-time All-America running back at Kansas, setting a Big 8 record with 2,657 yards and 6.5 yards per carry in three seasons — including a 99-yard touchdown run against Nebraska in 1963 and 283 yards on 22 carries against Oklahoma State in 1962.

Sayers was the fourth pick in the NFL draft in 1964 — the Bears needed a replacement for Willie Galimore, who was killed in a car accident in training camp prior to the 1964 season. He also was the fifth pick of the AFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. With a helping hand from Chicagoan, former Illinois star and Pro Bowl running back Buddy Young, Sayers chose the Bears.

“I wanted to be a running back and that’s where the Bears plan to use me,” Sayers said at the time. “It wasn’t about the money — I got about the same [offer] from each.”

Despite playing in just 68 NFL games, Sayers was a unanimous selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio in his first year of eligibility. At 34, he was the youngest enshrined in the history of the Hall of Fame. He was presented by Bears owner George Halas.

“When I first met Gale, I was impressed with the man,” Halas said upon presenting Sayers. “In practice he was 100 percent. In run plays he always ran the entire distance to the opposite goal. His teammates admired and respected him because he was always razor sharp physically.

“Gale recognized that his inherit skills would mean very little without the help of the blockers and he continually expressed his gratitude to them. Gale was respected by his opponents as well.”

But nothing put football into perspective for Sayers like his friendship with Piccolo, a teammate since their rookie year of 1965. Sayers credited Piccolo’s good nature and encouragement with helping him get through his recovery from knee surgery. Soon after, Piccolo faced a much greater battle against cancer in 1969. When Sayers was awarded the George Halas Courage Award for overcome the adversity of his knee surgery, he famously dedicated the award to Piccolo at the Pro Football Writers of America banquet in New York City.

“He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent — cancer,” Sayers said upon accepting the award. “He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ twenty-four hours a day, every day of his life.

“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow... 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 died on June 16, 1970. Sayers’ friendship with Piccolo was the focus of the tear-jerker made-for-TV movie, “Brian’s Song” in 1971.

After retiring from football Sayers returned to Kansas to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “I guess the most important thing in the long run will be the example this might set for kids coming along in sports,” he said in 1977. “They’ve got to learn they’ve got to go beyond sports and make it academically, too, to have something after they’re done playing ball or whatever they do.”

Sayers served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale from 1976-81. He also has been involved in private business and philanthropy. His jersey No. 40 was retired by the Bears — along with Butkus’ No. 51 — in a ceremony at Soldier Field in 1994.

“It was a great honor to play in the National Football League, and I consider myself very lucky to have played here in Chicago for you, the great Chicago Bear fans,” Sayers said at the halftime ceremony that night. “I want to congratulate my teammate Dick Butkus. After my first year in the league, I prayed every week that the Bears would not trade me to another team because I would have hated to play against No. 51.

“There are two people who are very special to me who are not here tonight, but I’m quite sure they are looking down in silence and probably thinking, `It’s about time.’ They are George Halas and Brian Piccolo. Thank you very much.”