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Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Hall of Famer, former KU football star Gale Sayers dies at 77

Kansas running back Gale Sayers is pictured in this file photo from 1962.

Kansas running back Gale Sayers is pictured in this file photo from 1962.

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Gale Sayers, a Kansas football legend who went on to become one of the NFL’s best all-purpose running backs, died Wednesday at the age of 77, the Pro Football Hall of Fame announced.

A speedy running back for the Jayhawks from 1962-64 and known as “The Kansas Comet,” Sayers was considered among the best open-field runners the game has ever seen. At KU, Sayers accounted for 3,917 all-purpose yards in just three seasons for the Jayhawks.

“We are saddened to hear of the passing of Kansas great, Gale Sayers,” KU head coach Les Miles stated. “I cherished every opportunity to watch him play and I am privileged to coach in the stadium that he once played in. He had a remarkable impact on the game of football and the University of Kansas, and my thoughts and prayers go out to his family.”

Sayers went on to become a Pro Football Hall of Famer in the NFL, despite only playing 68 career games for the Chicago Bears.

“He was the very essence of a team player — quiet, unassuming and always ready to compliment a teammate for a key block," Pro Football Hall of Fame President David Baker said. “Gale was an extraordinary man who overcame a great deal of adversity during his NFL career and life.”

Born in Wichita and a high school star at Omaha Central (Neb.) before he went on to KU, with the Jayhawks Sayers led the Big Eight Conference and ranked No. 3 nationally in his debut season of 1962, with 1,125 rushing yards, and averaged a nation-leading 7.1 yards per carry.

In both his second and third seasons at KU (freshmen couldn’t play at the time), Sayers was a consensus All-American.

In each of his three seasons at KU, Sayers led the team in rushing, touchdowns and kickoff returns. As a junior and senior, he also led the Jayhawks in receiving and punt returns.

In 1963, he became the first player in NCAA Division IA history to record a 99-yard run, when he sped down the length of the field for a touchdown at Nebraska. That season he also returned a 96-yard kickoff in a 15-14 KU upset over Oklahoma.

KU Athletic Director Jeff Long called Sayers “one of the greatest, if not the greatest, players to ever wear a Kansas football uniform.”

Long also announced that KU will unveil a statue of Sayers at halftime during the Jayhawks’ next home game, Oct. 3, versus Oklahoma State.

“Thankfully Gale was able to be involved throughout the sculpting process and had a chance to see photos of the finished statue,” Long said in a release. “It is a long overdue honor and will be a bittersweet ceremony, but this will allow us the opportunity to forever immortalize another KU football legend.”

He left Lawrence with 2,675 career rushing yards and 19 rushing touchdowns. He would later be inducted into college football’s hall of fame.

KU eventually retired Sayers’ No. 48 jersey.

“Gale was great player, but he was so much more,” former KU head coach Mark Mangino shared on Twitter after Sayers died. “He carried himself with class and always encouraged our players to earn their degrees. He talked more about life than football. KU lost a legend.”

Sayers became the No. 4 overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft following his time at KU, setting up a stellar career with the Chicago Bears.

Sayers rushed for 4,956 yards and produced 56 touchdowns for the Bears, becoming a four-time pro bowler.

Relatives of Sayers had said he was diagnosed with dementia. In March 2017, his wife, Ardythe, said she partly blamed his football career.

Sayers was a blur to NFL defenses, ghosting would-be tacklers or zooming by them like few running backs or kick returners before or since. Yet it was his rock-steady friendship with Brian Piccolo, depicted in the film “Brian’s Song,” that marked him as more than a sports star.

He became a stockbroker, sports administrator, businessman and philanthropist for several inner-city Chicago youth initiatives after his NFL career was cut short by serious injuries to both knees.

He tied one NFL record with six touchdowns in a game and set another with 22 touchdowns in his first season: 14 rushing, six receiving, one punt and one kickoff return. Sayers was a unanimous choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Sayers followed that by being voted an All-Pro during the first five of his seven NFL seasons (1965-71). But he was stuck on a handful of middling-to-bad Bears teams and, like Dick Butkus, another Hall of Fame teammate selected in the same 1965 draft, he never played in the postseason. Sayers appeared in just two games in each of his final two seasons (1970 and 1971) while attempting to return from those knee injuries.

Butkus said he hadn’t even seen Sayers play until a highlight film was shown at an event in New York that both attended honoring the 1964 All-America team. He said the real-life version of Sayers was even better.

“He was amazing. I still attribute a lot of my success from trying to tackle him (in practice),” Butkus said at the Bears’ 100th anniversary celebration in June 2019.

“I never came up against a running back like him in my whole career, as far as a halfback. And that was counting O.J. (Simpson) and a couple of other guys,” he added. “No one could touch this guy.”

The Bears drafted them with back-to-back picks in ’65, taking Butkus at No. 3 and Sayers at No. 4. It didn’t take long for Sayers to win over veterans who had helped the Bears take the NFL championship in 1963.

“We were both No. 1s, so they’re going to make it hard on us and show us the ropes and everything else,” Butkus said. “But Gale just ran circles around everybody. Quickly, they adopted him.”

The friendship between Sayers and backfield mate Piccolo began in 1967, when the two became unlikely roommates. In an era of sometimes tense race relations, Sayers was black and already a star; Piccolo was white and had worked his way up from the practice squad. Early on, they were competing for playing time and carries.

But when the club dropped its policy of segregating players by race in hotel room assignments, they forged a bond. In 1968, Piccolo helped Sayers through a tough rehab process while he recovered from a torn ligament in his right knee. After Sayers returned the next season to become an All-Pro, he made sure his friend shared in the credit.

They became even closer after Piccolo pulled himself out of a game early in the 1969 season because of breathing difficulties. He would be diagnosed with cancer. That phase of their friendship was recounted first by Sayers in his autobiography, “I Am Third,” and then in the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.”

With actor Billy Dee Williams playing Sayers and James Caan in Piccolo’s role, the made-for-TV movie was later released in theaters.

Sayers stayed by Piccolo’s side as the illness took its toll, donating blood and providing support. Just days before Piccolo’s death age 26, Sayers received the George S. Halas Award for courage and said: “You flatter me by giving me this award, but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. ... 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.”

After his playing days, Sayers served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and founded several technology and consulting businesses.

Sayers made the 130-mile trip from his home in Indiana to attend the opening ceremony of the Bears’ 100th-season celebration in June 2019, receiving a rousing ovation.

“It’s amazing someone that was so beautiful and gifted and talented as a player and later in life to have that happen to you is really, I know, tough on everybody,” Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said that weekend.

“It’s tough on his teammates, former teammates. It’s tough on the league. And as a player,” Singletary concluded, “it just makes you take a step back and thank God every day for your own health and blessings.”

None by NFL Throwback

Comments

Stephen Johnson 1 month ago

A great football player and from all I have heard even a better man.

Dane Pratt 1 month ago

Either they were really bad at tackling when he played or he was the most elusive running back ever. It's amazing how many times he was up against a seemingly impenetrable group of defenders only to find a way to escape.

Suzi Marshall 1 month ago

Such sad news. Gale was the assistant Kansas AD during my KU days. He was a constant presence around campus, always with a smile and encouraging word, although he tended to stutter a bit and was a quiet man. Kansas was extremely lucky to have princes like Gale Sayers and JoJo White around at the same time.

Brett McCabe 1 month ago

I’m 58 and I have never looked forward more to January 1 than I do this year. This sh*t really needs to just stop.

I met Gale at an autograph signing when the Wal Mart opened in Lawrence. My first impression when he stood up and shook my hand was that he was a much bigger dude than I imagined. And he looked fit enough to to play.

That highlight film looks like Steven Spielberg made a movie about a super hero football player. I mean, watching him run is a thing of beauty.

I think he’s the best we’ve ever had. And a great gentleman. Peace to Gayle and his family.

Brad Avery 1 month ago

As a 9th grader, I had the honor and privilege of watching Gale play in 1964 against Oklahoma. He took a kickoff back 93 yards before you could say the word "touchdown," spearheading an upset 15-14 KU victory over the Sooners. What a great Jayhawk and a great pro.

Kenneth Johnson 1 month ago

As a KU fan from the time I was ten (now 79), I was a giant fan of Sayers. I lived in Topeka and was a student at KU when he played for the Jayhawks, so I was able to attend many of the games. Later, I tried to see all the Bears games on TV, including the one where he scored six touchdowns.

Several years later, at a KU basketball game, he signed a football for me. Unfortunately, I gave it to my son who then played football with it, erasing Gale's signature. Fortuitously, when he came to Des Moines a number of years later on a book signing tour, he resigned the football, which I keep prominently displayed in my Jayhawk bookcase.

Three nights ago, on Sports Roundup, a regular Sunday evening TV show on our NBC station, the sportscasters named Gale as their favorite football player of all time. I couldn't agree more.

Kenn Johnson (KU MS '70) Author of Kansas University Basketball Legends and More University of Kansas Basketball Legends, both published by The History Press, Charleston, SC, available from the KU Book Stores and Amazon. kjoh6341@mchsi.com Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/kennjohnson

Tony Bandle 1 month ago

Watching Gale destroy my St. Louis Football Cardinals, I was amazed at how effortless he looked while seemingly moving at a different speed than the rest of the players.

Another football great who just recently passed, Larry Wilson, said that Gale was possibly, next to Jim Brown, the hardest man to tackle during his entire career.

Lou Brock, Gale Sayers, Larry Wilson.....this has been a hard month for me. :(

Brad Watson 1 month ago

I remember my dad yelling at the radio when he had the 99 yard run against Nebraska...He was my dads' favorite player ever and as a kid he quickly became mine as well....I never saw him play in person at KU...but I did see him in an exhibition game...when the Bears played against the Chiefs (66-24 K.C.) before the merger at old Municipal Stadium...eons ago...WHAT A BALLPLAYER!!!!!

Lance Hobson 4 weeks, 1 day ago

I met him in Djibouti when he visited on a USO tour in 2005. I was deployed there and didn’t know he was coming. I decided to stop by the event on the way to my tent and saw him on stage and immediately recognized him. Made my entire deployment! He talked to me and I got pictures with him. He was there with KState alumnus and current president Gen Meyers and we had some fun with our Rock Chalk chants. What a great guy.

Pat Bell 4 weeks ago

59grad I remember going back to KU football games and watching Gale Sayers play. He was truly amazing. Can't remember who we were playing, but it was one game where we scored on the first play and scored again on the last play to win the game. We had some friends who got there late and got discouraged and left early to beat the traffic. They were really bummed and we determined then that we would never let that happen to us! Many great memories of my years as a KU fanatic!!

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