In the 1960s, Gale Sayers was one of the National Football League’s first great running backs.
Although he wasn’t what was considered at the time to be a prototypical tailback who bulldozed defenders, he was immediately one of the game’s most prolific weapons.
His physical gifts and versatility made him into a legend in one of the nation’s biggest markets, and although his career was shorter than those of most legends, his legacy continues to shine bright, especially for those who were lucky enough to see him play.
A Rising Star
On May 30, 1943, Gale Eugene Sayers was born in Wichita, Kan. to Roger Earl Sayers and Bernice Ross. Roger supported Gale and his two other sons by working as a mechanic for the tire company Goodyear.
In 1950, the Sayers family moved to Speed, Kan., which is a very small town near the northern border of the state. They headed there to take over a wheat farm that belonged to Sayers’ grandfather, who had become seriously ill.
A year later, they relocated to Omaha, Neb., where Roger would work for auto dealerships by polishing cars.
Sayers’ brothers were successful athletes. His younger brother Ron made it to the pros and played running back for the San Diego Chargers, while his older brother Roger ran track and field in college.
Gale got his start as an athlete when he joined a local football league at the age of eight. Although he was reasonably strong, his biggest gift was his elite speed and ability to shift directions and elude defenders.
By the time he made it to Omaha Central High School, Sayers was a standout athlete, not just on the football field, but also in the sport of track and field. There, during his senior year, he set a Nebraska record of 24 feet 10-1/2 inches in the broad jump event while finishing fourth in high hurdles and winning three gold medals in local competitions.
On the gridiron, he was used as both a running back and a middle linebacker, and he helped lead his team to the state championship as a junior. Statistics of his high school football career are very sparse, but according to newspaper records, he had several games where he rushed for over 100 yards.
In addition, in his senior year, he intercepted a pass and took it 53 yards for a touchdown, and on another occasion, he recovered a fumble and ran it 29 yards for a touchdown. In all, he led the state in scoring that season with 127 points.
Sayers earned All-Midwestern and All-American honors, and due to his all-around excellence in football and track and field, he was deluged with over 100 scholarship offers to play football for numerous schools across the Midwest. He reportedly signed 17 letters of intent for institutions such as Iowa State, Northwestern and Notre Dame.
The Kansas Comet
Sayers decided to attend the University of Kansas, allowing him to stay relatively close to home. Years later, he admitted that his first choice was the University of Iowa, but he decided against the school when its head coach, Jerry Burns, didn’t meet personally with him when he visited its campus.
Back in those days, freshmen were not allowed to compete on a college’s varsity football team (this rule was changed in 1972), but once Sayers was a sophomore, he started to take off right away.
That year he ran for 1,125 yards, which was third in the NCAA, while averaging 7.1 yards per rush attempt, which led the nation, and scoring seven touchdowns.
In one notable game against Oklahoma State, he exploded for 283 yards on just 21 carries as the Kansas Jayhawks overcame a deficit and won easily, 36-17. His 283 yards in that contest set a Big Eight Conference record for most yards in a single game.
In another contest, this time against Nebraska, he set an NCAA Division I FBS record by recording a 99-yard run for a touchdown.
Off the field, Sayers wasn’t the most confident or bright student around. He would later admit in his autobiography that an unidentified reporter once said he “was shy almost to the point of boorishness, completely inarticulate, [and] apprehensive about whether he was going to make it scholastically and as a football player.”
One thing that helped him develop off the field was his marriage to his high school sweetheart, Linda Lou McNeil, just after the end of his freshman year at Kansas. The families of both Sayers and McNeil were against the two eloping, but they went ahead with it anyway.
Sayers’ love was unquestionably there for him, supporting not only his academic goals but also his aspirations as a football player.
He also pledged the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity, allowing him to meet Jesse Milan, a fraternity advisor, who helped him with academics and emotional support, as did Sayers’ speech coach, Tom Hendricks.
At first, Sayers lacked passion for academics, not to mention the confidence he needed to get good grades, but with the help of his new allies, he was able to achieve a 3.0 grade point average by the end of his junior year.
His personal growth and development also helped him on the gridiron that year, as he tallied a conference-high 917 rushing yards, to go along with eight touchdowns (seven rushing and one receiving), earning him first-team All-America honors.
Sayers continued to show his potential as a senior while flashing his unique versatility. In addition to his 633 rushing yards, he caught 17 passes for 182 yards, returned 15 punts for 138 yards and returned seven kickoffs for 193 yards.
His insane speed and quickness, coupled with his ability to shift around and hit openings in order to prevent defenders from tackling him, earned him the nickname the “Kansas Comet.”
4 days until we kick off under those Friday Night Lights 🏟
— Kansas Football (@KU_Football) August 30, 2021
Once again he was named a first-team All-American by numerous press outlets, and pro teams were starting to pay close attention to him.
A Monster On The Midway
The pro football landscape was different in 1965 compared to modern times. In addition to the NFL, there was a rival league known as the American Football League (AFL), and it eventually gained a decent share of the market by boasting a more up-tempo and exciting style of football.
This meant that Sayers had a difficult decision to make. The Chicago Bears of the NFL drafted him with the fourth pick in the 1965 draft, but the Kansas City Chiefs, then an AFL team, also drafted him.
Playing for the Chiefs would’ve allowed him to stay close to his adopted college hometown, and although they offered him a bigger contract, Sayers opted for the Bears and signed for $100,000 over four years and a $50,000 signing bonus.
Playing for legendary head coach George Halas, who had led the Bears to the league title in 1963, Sayers was the stuff of legend right from the outset of his rookie season.
In addition to running back, Halas would not only use Sayers as a receiver out of the backfield, but also as a kick and punt returner. The results would be nothing short of remarkable.
In 1965, Sayers had 867 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground, 507 yards and six touchdowns in the air, 238 yards and one touchdown on punt returns and 660 yards and a touchdown on kickoff returns.
In all, he had 2,272 all-purpose yards on the season, which led the league and set a new NFL rookie record, as well as 22 touchdowns.
Not only was his volume incredible, but so was his efficiency. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, 17.5 yards per reception, 14.9 yards per punt return and a league-leading 31.4 yards per kickoff return.
In Week 5 against the Minnesota Vikings, Sayers had 64 yards and a touchdown on the ground, 63 yards and two touchdowns on four receptions and a 98-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. No other player would score a rushing, receiving and returning touchdown in the same game until Tyreek Hill pulled it off about 50 years later.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) January 16, 2022
In a December 12 contest, Sayers notched a truly incredible feat by tying a league record with six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers in a 61-20 massacre, despite muddy conditions at Wrigley Field, the Bears’ home stadium.
A look back at Gale Sayers 6 TD game vs. the 49ers in 1965: pic.twitter.com/xiBaA3rcRw
— Bear Report (@BearReport) September 23, 2020
It all made Sayers the consensus Rookie of the Year. Halas was effusive in his praise of the rookie, comparing him favorably to a couple of Bears legends from the NFL’s embryonic years.
“Gale is in the same class with [Red] Grange and [George] McAfee right now,” said the Bears coach. “I know they are two Bear immortals, but Sayers rates with both of them. And remember we used to call George ‘one-play’ McAfee.”
His teammates were equally impressed with him and his uncanny ability to seemingly make something out of nothing.
“He had this ability to go full speed, cut and then go full speed again right away,” said Hall of Fame teammate Dick Butkus, a linebacker. “I saw it every day in practice. We played live, and you could never get a clean shot on Gale. Never.”
“He was the best runner with a football under his arm I’ve ever seen,” said Mike Ditka years later, who played with Sayers in 1965 and ’66 and, notably, later coached Walter Payton.
As impossible as it may be to believe, Sayers’ second season as a pro was even better. He not only rushed for eight touchdowns and an NFL-high 1,231 yards on 5.4 yards per carry, he also had 447 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns, plus 718 yards and two touchdowns on kickoff returns.
With 2,440 all-purpose yards, Sayers not only led the league again but also set an all-time NFL record. As he had in his rookie year, he was named to the Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team.
Gale Sayers' greatest run against the Cardinals came on Halloween night in 1966. RIP pic.twitter.com/3X353xxw7S
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) September 23, 2020
He ended the 1966 campaign with a bang, scorching the Minnesota Vikings in Week 15 with 197 rushing yards and 116 kickoff return yards. The highlight of the game was the opening kickoff, which Sayers took 90 yards for a touchdown.
His production dipped a bit the following year, as he would start sharing snaps with a few other backs, such as newcomer Brian Piccolo. Instead of seeing him as a threat, Sayers would develop a close friendship with him, even becoming roommates with him.
The third-year back had 880 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground in 1967. While he wasn’t used as a punt returner as much as in previous seasons, he was still a prime kick returner, running back 16 kickoffs for 603 yards and three touchdowns.
For yet another season, Sayers led everyone in all-purpose yards with 1,689.
In Week 12 against the 49ers, Sayers again showed why he was exceptionally special. He took the opening kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown and added a rushing touchdown.
Fearing Sayers’ abilities on special teams, Niners coach Jack Christiansen told his team to send all punts out of bounds. But it didn’t do much good, as Sayers still managed to catch one and maneuver through his opponents for 58 yards and a touchdown.
He was able to do all that even though Kezar Stadium, the Niners’ home field, was very slick due to rain.
Sayers started off the 1968 season with a vengeance with 856 rushing yards and two touchdowns in the first nine games of the year, and he had over 100 rushing yards in five of those contests.
Week 8 against the Green Bay Packers was a particularly prolific contest for him. It was the biggest game of his career in terms of rushing, as he feasted with 205 yards on just 24 carries in a three-point win.
But in the next game against San Francisco, Sayers suffered a catastrophic injury. He sustained multiple torn knee ligaments, including his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL), while also tearing his meniscus cartilage, and just like that, his season was over.
Although he wasn’t named to the Pro Bowl, he still garnered First-Team All-Pro recognition for the fourth straight year.
Although Sayers threw himself into a rehabilitation program following surgery, most expected him to lose a fair amount of his ability to elude and blow past defenders once he returned to the football field. The conventional wisdom was that it took players at his position two years to regain their speed and quickness, if they regained all of it to begin with.
But when the 1969 season started, Sayers looked like his old self again, and the Bears went to him early and often. Appearing in all 14 games, he took a league-high 236 carries and turned them into 1,032 yards, another league-high, and eight touchdowns.
It allowed him to regain his spot in the Pro Bowl while garnering First-Team All-Pro honors for the fifth consecutive year, a truly remarkable accomplishment.
It’s one thing to consistently be voted to participate in the Pro Bowl, but it’s another to consistently dominate the actual game. In four trips to the midseason classic in his first five seasons, Gayers was elected MVP three times.
In addition, Sayers was named the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year by United Press International (UPI) in 1969. His physical talents and skills and tricks of the trade had never been in question, but he had also proven that he had the determination, resolve and will to overcome the type of injury that ends the careers of some other athletes.
Gayers’ first five seasons in the NFL were as dominant as anyone else’s, past or present, but the only problem was that the Bears weren’t a good team.
Although they managed to finish with a winning record in 1965 and 1967, they didn’t make the playoffs. Despite Sayers’ exploits in ’69, they had a pathetic 1-13 record.
Still, he managed to give Chicago sports fans, who are among the most loyal in the nation, something to cheer for on a consistent basis, even when the Bears as a team were not deserving of any cheers.
Un Untimely End To A Phenomenal Career
In the 1970 preseason, Sayers again got hurt, this time sustaining a bone bruise in his left knee. He tried playing on it in the season opener, but he had trouble doing his thing.
After sitting out the next two games, Sayers returned in Week 4 against the Minnesota Vikings, but he suffered a stretched ligament in his left knee and was forced to undergo surgery again, ending his season.
While he was out, the running back looked to make the most of his time. He took classes in order to learn how to be a stockbroker, while also entering a Paine Webber program and finishing second in sales.
Sayers was eager for his second comeback once the 1971 season began. He was brought along slowly, and although he only had 30 rushing yards in his first game that season, he said after the game that his knee felt good and that he was satisfied with how he played.
Unfortunately, he hurt his ankle the next week against the 49ers, and yet again, another season had come to a premature end due to injury.
After giving things one final try in the 1972 preseason, Sayers decided to hang up his cleats for good.
Productive In Retirement
One has to wonder how much more Sayers would’ve accomplished if he had remained healthy for at least a few more years. Running backs typically start declining around age 30, yet Sayers’ first major injury came at the tender age of 25, while his second knee injury happened when he was 27, forcing him to retire at just 29.
In essence, Gayers’ viability as a prime NFL tailback ended after his age 26 season, which was way too early.
Still, he is regarded as one of the game’s truly legendary players, and he got the ultimate honor when, in 1977, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. At age 34, he was the youngest player to earn such recognition.
Sayers’ close friendship with Brian Piccolo was truly special. During the 1969 season, the latter took himself out of a game due to breathing difficulties, and he was subsequently diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma.
After he underwent two surgical procedures as a result, doctors found that his cancer had become metastatic and had spread elsewhere. He would soon pass away at age 26.
Just as Piccolo had helped Sayers rehab from his injuries, Sayers was there for Piccolo as he fought cancer. The running back wrote about the experience in his autobiography “I Am Third,” and it became the topic of a 1971 Made for TV movie “Brian’s Song,” which was critically acclaimed and received very high Nielsen ratings.
50 years ago today in 1971, ABC's Movie of the Week #BriansSong aired starring #BillyDeeWilliams and #JamesCaan, based on the real-life relationship between teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and the bond established when Piccolo discovers that he is dying. pic.twitter.com/FhsmZeW3D1
— Silver Age Television 📺 (@SilverAgeTV) November 30, 2021
In the years to come, Sayers kept himself busy. He returned to the University of Kansas and got his degree in education, and after serving as the assistant athletic director, he accepted a position as the athletic director at Southern Illinois University Carbondale.
In the 1980s, Sayers became an entrepreneur, starting Sayers and Sayers Enterprises, a public relations firm. In 1984 he founded Crest Computer Supply Company, a computer equipment company based in the Chicago area, and within 10 years, it had hit over $50 million in sales.
The firm would grow to serve over 400 clients, some of them being Fortune 500 companies, while expanding into technology services. In fact, for his work, Sayers would be named to the Chicago Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame while also winning the prestigious Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award.
He would also support and get involved in numerous charities that aided children, including the Cradle Foundation, the Better Boys Foundation and the Boy Scouts of America, and he would start the Gale Sayers Center, which is an after-school center that provides educational and vocational programs for young children in Chicago’s west side.
In 2017, his wife Ardythe said that he had been diagnosed with dementia and that a Mayo Clinic doctor said that it was likely caused by playing football. The condition gradually got worse, as it first affected his memory, then daily tasks, even those as simple as signing his name.
He was one of a number of former NFL players who the media focused on due to neurological ailments that were caused by the physicality of the game. Concerns over dementia, concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) caused the league to institute rule changes in order to try to prevent such ailments.
In fact, Sayers, along with some other players, would sue the NFL, claiming that it downplayed numerous head injuries he suffered during his career and that he was even encouraged to keep playing even after suffering concussions.
On September 23, 2020, Sayers died at the age of 77.
He may be gone physically, but his game, accomplishments and spirit will live forever.
RIP to the legendary, Gale Sayers.
In 7 seasons with Chicago:
-4x Pro Bowler
-5x First-Team All-Pro
-2x Rushing Yards leader
-Rookie of the Year
-Comeback Player of the Year (1969)
-Averaged 138.7 all-purpose yards per game
He's in the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame. pic.twitter.com/cbXE2yMm2H
— Four Verts 🏈 (@FourVerticals_) September 23, 2020