Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, whose electrifying runs and kick returns captivated Bears fans during an injury-shortened career and whose friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo endeared him to millions in the movie "Brian’s Song," died Wednesday.
Sayers, nicknamed the "Kansas Comet" during his college days at the University of Kansas, was 77. His death was announced Wednesday morning by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was diagnosed in 2012 with dementia, according to his wife, Ardythe, who confirmed Sayers’ illness in 2017.
"All those who love the game of football mourn the loss of one of the greatest to ever play this game with the passing of Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers," Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said in a statement. "He was the very essence of a team player — quiet, unassuming and always ready to compliment a teammate for a key block. Gale was an extraordinary man who overcame a great deal of adversity during his NFL career and life."
Sayers played in just 68 games before being forced into retirement because of continuing knee problems. Despite the brevity of his career, he was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 1977 at age 34. He remains the youngest player to ever be selected for enshrinement in Canton.
Sayers set an NFL record with 22 touchdowns as a rookie in 1965 when he joined the Bears as the No. 4 overall pick. He had a record-tying six touchdowns in one game against the 49ers and produced 2,272 all-purpose yards to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
In his first five seasons, Sayers made four Pro Bowl appearances and was a first-team All-Pro five times.
Sayers was sidelined with a knee injury with five games remaining in the 1968 season, but he returned the following year to lead the NFL in rushing yards and become the NFL Comeback Player of the Year. He suffered another knee injury in 1970 and was forced into retirement after the 1971 season. Sayers finished with 4,956 rushing yards, a 5.0-yard per-carry average, and 39 rushing touchdowns. Sayers also had nine receiving touchdowns and a combined eight punt and kick return scores.
"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," Bears Hall of Fame linebacker Dick Butkus said. "We lost one of the best Bears ever and more importantly we lost a great person."
Sayers’ friendship with Piccolo, a fellow running back, prompted Sayers to write his autobiography, "I Am Third," which was made into a television movie in 1971 called "Brian’s Song." Sayers credited Piccolo, a teammate since their rookie seasons, with helping him return from his knee injury.
Piccolo was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1969. After Sayers was awarded the George Halas Award for overcoming adversity that season, he gave the award to Piccolo during an acceptance speech at the Pro Football Writers of America banquet in New York.
"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. "He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life.
"You flatter me by giving me this award," he said, "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.
Actor Billy Dee Williams, who played Sayers in "Brian's Song," tweeted: "My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers. 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."
Halas, the Hall of Fame coach who founded the Bears in 1920, presented Sayers at the Hall of Fame.
"When I first met Gale, I was impressed with the man," Halas said at the enshrinement ceremonies in Canton, Ohio. "In practice he was 100%. 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 inherent 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."