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

photo by: AP File Photo

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

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.”

Sayers 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 at 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.”