Gale Sayers, one of the most electric NFL players of the 1960s, has died. He was 77 years old.
The Pro Football Hall of Famer was a brilliant running back and returner who spent only seven years in the league, all with the Chicago Bears, from 1965 to 1971.
Sayers is often cited as the predecessor to the modern-era running back who was more than just a bruiser between the tackles. His career 5.0-yards-per-carry rushing average was surpassed only by four true running backs ever — Jamaal Charles, Jim Brown, Mercury Morris and Marion Motley.
“The NFL family lost a true friend today with the passing of Gale Sayers,” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “Gale was one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game's most exciting players. Gale was an electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball. He earned his place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer.
“We will also forever remember Gale for his inspiration and kindness. Gale's quiet unassuming demeanor belied his determination, competitiveness and compassion. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife Ardie, and their 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.”
Nicknamed the “Kansas Comet” after a brilliant college career with the Jayhawks, Sayers had one of the NFL’s all-time best rookie seasons after entering the league as the fourth overall selection in the 1965 NFL draft.
Sayers set a league record that first season by scoring 22 touchdowns — including a record-tying six in a single game — and gained 2,272 all-purpose yards, also throwing for a TD pass and running back one punt and one kickoff for scores in 14 games in 1965. He was named the NFL's Rookie of the Year and would earn four Pro Bowl appearances and five first-team All-Pro selections in his first five seasons.
Asked how he always seemed able to escape from traffic on the field and break open big runs, Sayers once said: “Just give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.”
“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 & 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.”
To this day Sayers is still the youngest ever Pro Football Hall Of Fame inductee at age 34, in 1977.
Sayers’ career hits abrupt end
In 1968, Sayers suffered a serious knee injury. Without the medical technology of today, he was never the same, though he reinvented himself and led the NFL in rushing in 1969 as he ran with power and toughness. After another serious knee injury in the preseason of 1970, he played in only four more games and rushed for just 90 more yards.
The greatness during Sayers’ relatively short run was undeniable, however. Sayers was the only player to make the NFL’s 75th anniversary team at two different positions, running back and kick returner. Only three other Pro Football Hall of Famers played fewer than Sayers’ 68 games.
Off the field, Sayers had a successful business career. Many casual fans might know Sayers through the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song,” which chronicled Sayers’ friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer.
The movie, in which Sayers was played by Billy Dee Williams and Piccolo was played by James Caan, was based on parts of Sayers’ autobiography “I Am Third.”
The book’s title was a shortened version of his words: “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”
“Football fans know well Gale’s many accomplishments on the field: a rare combination of speed and power as the game’s most electrifying runner, a dangerous kick returner, his comeback from a serious knee injury to lead the league in rushing, and becoming the youngest player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame,” Bears chairman George H. McCaskey said in a statement.
“People who weren’t even football fans came to know Gale through the TV movie ‘Brian’s Song,’ about his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo. Fifty years later, the movie’s message that brotherhood and love needn’t be defined by skin color, still resonates.
“Coach [George] Halas said it best, when presenting Gale for induction at the Hall of Fame: ‘His like will never be seen again.’ On behalf of the McCaskey family, we offer our sincerest condolences to [his wife] Ardie and the entire Sayers family.”
In 2017, Sayers’ wife Ardie said her husband was suffering from dementia, which he was diagnosed with four years earlier. Ardie Sayers said doctors told her they believed football played a role in Gale’s dementia.
Yahoo Sports’ Frank Schwab contributed to this report.
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