Mike Ditka remembered former Bears teammate Gale Sayers as more than just a great player.
“He was a special guy, too,” Ditka said of Sayers, the Bears Hall of Fame running back who died Wednesday at 77. “You never heard him say a word. He was quiet. He was humble. Not only was he a special player, he was a good, good guy.”
Ditka played with Sayers for two seasons, 1965 and 1966, when Sayers was his most magnificent — seven touchdowns of 50 or more yards, including three 80-yard scores; and kick returns of 96, 93, 90 and 85 yards.
“When he came here, we had him and Ronnie Bull, and I think a lot of guys were pulling for Ronnie Bull,” Ditka said. “But once he had the ball, it was all over. Even our coaching staff didn’t know how good he was coming out of Kansas until they really saw him. When they saw him, they knew how good he was — believe me.”
Ditka not only played with Sayers — who played in just 68 NFL games — but coached Walter Payton, who missed one game in 13 NFL seasons.
“I think the two greatest players the Bears ever had were him and Walter,” Ditka said. “They were two different kind of players. But they were effective and did a great job.”
Though Sayers career was short, his impact was immeasurable and unforgettable, Ditka said.
“People will say there were better players, but I don’t know who they are,” Ditka said. “I don’t know anybody that ran the football any better than Gale Sayers. I played in that game he scored six touchdowns [against the 49ers in 1965]. Everybody was slipping and sliding and he kept scoring. He was special. He was magic. He made things happen.”
The death of one of the greatest running backs to step on a football field elicited heartfelt tributes throughout the NFL world and beyond Wednesday.
Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus, who was drafted third overall, one spot ahead of Sayers in the 1965 NFL Draft (which actually was held Nov. 28, 1964), said in a statement released by the Bears:
“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. We lost one of the best Bears ever and more importantly we lost a great person.”
Lions Hall of Fame running back Barry Sanders — arguably the closest thing to Sayers in running style since Sayers retired before the 1972 season, became a friend of the former Bears great.
Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith, the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, also offered condolences on Twittter:
Always a sad day when we lose one of the best... My deepest condolences to the family of Gale Sayers. His legacy will continue to inspire future generations. https://t.co/cjfBCX7TLH— Emmitt Smith (@EmmittSmith22) September 23, 2020
Former Bears defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, 62, now the head coach of the Broncos, paid his respect to Sayers in a video conference with Broncos media:
“I am saddened by the death of Gale Sayers. The Kansas Comet. I met him a few times in Chicago. A nice man. He was electric, a rare bird. If wasn’t for his [knee] injury, he was like Sandy Koufax of football.”
Actors Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, who played Sayers and Piccolo in “Brian’s Song,” also tweeted their condolences.
My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers.— Billy Dee Williams (@realbdw) September 23, 2020
Portraying Gale in Brian’s Song was a true honor and one of the nightlights of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart.
My sincerest condolences to his family #RIPGaleSayers pic.twitter.com/OyQRlwuznU
Former Bears defensive end Ed O’Bradovich, a teammate throughout Sayers’ seven-year NFL career, expressed the sentiment of the day most profoundly with a moving tribute on “The Dan Bernstein Show” on WSCR-AM.
“God loved Gale Sayers,” O’Bradovich said, his voice filling with emotion. “He could run like no other running back could ever run — or ever will run — in the National Football League.”