“Give me eighteen inches of daylight. That’s all I need.”
Those are the memorable words of the remarkable Gale Sayers, who died today at the age of 77. The silky-smooth, pure runner played for the Bears in the NFL from 1965-1971.
The “Kansas Comet,” as he was dubbed due to his explosive running capabilities and having played his college games for the University of Kansas Jayhawks, was drafted 4th overall by the Chicago Bears in the 1965 draft. Right before him, Dick Butkus, legendary Bears linebacker out of the University of Illinois was selected. Certainly 1965 was one of the best drafts, if not the best, in Bears history. With Kansas, Sayers put up 4,020 all-purpose yards over three seasons and was twice recognized as an All-American.
In Sayers’ rookie season with the Bears, he set a league record, at the time, of 22 touchdowns in a single season. During that season, he also amassed 2,272 all-purpose yards, landing him in the Pro Bowl and winning the NFL’s Rookie of the Year award. Sayers would go on to make three more Pro Bowls over the next three seasons. On October 17th, 1965, just a month into his career, Sayers scored a touchdown by 3 different methods against the Minnesota Vikings. He scored two passing touchdowns, a rushing touchdown, and returned a kickoff for a touchdown as well. No player accomplished that feat until Tyreek Hill of the Kansas City Chiefs repeated that in 2016.
Most notably, Gale Sayers had himself quite the game later his rookie season. On December 12, 1965, Sayers scored six touchdowns against the San Francisco 49ers. He rushed for four touchdowns from 21, 7, 50, and 1 yards respectively. He scored on an 80 yard dump pass and scamper for a touchdown. Lastly, he returned a punt 85 yards for another score. Sayers, alone, accounted for 326 yards for the day: 113 rushing, 89 receiving, and 134 yards returning punts. Sayers’s dominant performance led to a total walloping of the 49ers, 61-20. In accomplishing this incredible feat, he capped off a masterful rookie season and was the consensus selection for Rookie of the Year. Only Ernie Nevers of the Chicago Cardinals (1929) and Dub Jones of the Cleveland Browns (1959) had ever scored six touchdowns in a single game before and no player has ever accomplished this since then. Many have considered this game as one of the single best individual performances in NFL history.
His second year in the league saw more success as Sayers amassed 1,231 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry, and 8 touchdowns, which landed him his first rushing title. Despite a successful 1966 season, his production dropped in 1967 due to sharing the workload with other halfbacks on the team, most notably Brian Piccolo. More on that in a bit. In 1968, he had a career day in rushing yards against the Green Bay Packers, going for 205 yards on the day. Later that season, Gale Sayers tore his ACL, MCL, and meniscus cartilage. He underwent surgery, but due to lack of medical technology compared to our world today, it affected him the rest of his career. Brian Piccolo was a key part in helping Sayers recover and rehabilitate and helped Sayers return to the field. In 1969, remarkably, Sayers still was a great player, and led the league in rushing for his second rushing title. He was the only player that year to rush for over 1,000 yards as Sayers amassed 1,032 yards.
Despite an impressive comeback in 1969, in 1970, Sayers injured his other knee with several bone bruises. He underwent surgery again, missing the remainder of the 1970 season. Attempting a comeback once more in 1971, Sayers injured his ankle only his second game back into the season, an injury that would sideline him for the remainder of the season. Despite being encouraged to retire, Sayers decided to make another comeback attempt in 1972. Sadly, he never saw a snap that season as his final game was a preseason game in which he fumbled twice in three carries. A few days later, the running back great retired from professional football.
Sayers cemented himself as one of the greatest running backs of all time, even though his career was shortened. His quickness, ability to cut on a dime, and acceleration were never seen on a level like his at the time. He will always be remembered by many for his incredible, electrifying performances, and the way he provided a bright hope in the midst of the dregs of the history of Bears football.
Lastly, in 1967, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo became the first interracial roommates in the NFL. Not only was that remarkable, but Sayers and Piccolo, who shared the load of the running in 1967, became close friends. Piccolo was a key player in helping Sayers rehabilitate after his knee injury in 1968. Then, in 1969, despite Piccolo receiving an increase in load, while still sharing with the recovered Sayers, Piccolo found himself having trouble breathing during games. He was sent to the hospital and was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. Piccolo had the tumor, one of his lungs and pectoral muscles removed in an attempt to clear the cancer, but the cancer had already spread to the other organs in his body and in June of 1970, Piccolo passed. Sayers was known for always being there for Piccolo during his cancer and their friendship and help during trying health times brought them closer. Sayers was heartbroken when he passed, but the month before, Sayers received the George S. Halas Award for the Most Courageous Player, and Sayers quickly remarked that the wrong person had been given the award, obviously referring to Piccolo. This touching and inspiring story has been forever immortalized in Sayers’ book, “I Am Third,” as well as the film, “Brian’s Song.” “Brian’s Song” originally was a made-for-TV movie that aired in 1971 starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers. A remake was released on television in 2001.
Sayers was an incredible, determined player, a loyal friend, and a great man. He was 77.
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