Gale Eugene Sayers (b. May 30, 1943, Wichita, Kansas), also known as "The Kansas Comet", was a professional football player in the National Football League who spent his entire career with the Chicago Bears. He currently resides in Chicago, Illinois.
Sayers, raised in Omaha, Nebraska, graduated from Omaha Central High School and was a two-time All-American player at the University of Kansas. During his Jayhawk career, he rushed for 2,675 yards and gained 3,917 all-purpose yards. In 1963, he set an NCAA Division I record with a 99-yard run against Nebraska. In his senior year, he led the Jayhawks to a 15-14 upset victory over Oklahoma with a 96-yard kickoff return. Sayers is considered by many to have been the greatest open field runner in college football history.
While attending the University of Kansas, Sayers became a member of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.
Rookie season (1965)
Gale Sayers was drafted by the Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League, but signed with Chicago. In his rookie year, he scored an NFL record 22 touchdowns (14 rushing, 6 receiving, and 1 each on punt and kickoff returns). He gained 1,374 yards from scrimmage and had 2,272 all-purpose yards (also a record, later broken by Tim Brown, who played two more games than Sayers). He tied Ernie Nevers' and Dub Jones' record for touchdowns in a single game, with 6 against the San Francisco 49ers on December 12.
Sayers averaged an impressive 5.2 yards per rush and 17.5 yards per reception. His return averages were even more impressive, with 14.9 yards per punt return and 31.4 yards per kickoff return. He was the unanimous choice for NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Despite his heroics, the Bears finished in third place in the NFL Western Conference (behind the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts)
Second NFL season (1966)
In his second season, despite being the focus of opposing defenses, Sayers led the league in rushing with 1,231 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with 8 touchdowns. He led the Bears in receiving with 34 catches, 447 yards, and two more scores; he also more than matched his rookie season's kick return numbers, averaging 31.2 yards per return with 2 touchdowns. He set another NFL record with 2,440 all-purpose yards despite the fact the Bears struggled, finishing in fifth place with a 5-7-2 record. Sayers also won the first of three Pro Bowl Most Valuable Player awards.
Third NFL season (1967)
In George Halas's last season as an NFL coach, Sayers again starred on a relatively average Bear team. Sharing more of the rushing duties with other backs, like Brian Piccolo, Sayers gained only 880 yards with a 4.7 average per carry. His receptions were down as well, as the Chicago offense had become somewhat punchless. Only his returns remained spectacular. He had 3 kickoff returns for touchdowns on only 16 returns, averaging 37.7 yards per return. Only rarely returning punts, Sayers still managed to run one back for a score. Chicago finished in second place in the newly organized Central Division with a 7-6-1 record.
First and second injuries
After the first nine games of 1968, Sayers was again leading the NFL in rushing (he finished with 856 yards and a 6.2 average per carry). However, his season ended prematurely in a game against the San Francisco 49ers when Sayers tore many ligaments in his right knee. After surgery, Sayers went through a physical rehabilitation program with the help of teammate Brian Piccolo.
In the 1969 season Sayers led the league in rushing once again with 1,032 yards, but he lacked the lightning speed he once had, and averaged only 4.4 yards per carry. The Bears, long past the Halas glory years, finished in last place with a franchise worst 1–13 record.
In 1970, Sayers suffered a second knee injury, this time to his left knee. Piccolo also died of cancer that year. During his off time, Sayers took classes to become a stockbroker and became the first black stockbroker in his company's history. After another rehabilitation period, he tried a comeback in 1971, but was not successful. He was encouraged to retire because of his loss of speed. His final game was in the preseason; he was handed the ball three times and fumbled twice.
Sayers retired from football in 1971.
In 1977, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is still the youngest inductee in the Hall's history. In 1994, the Bears retired his number 40 at Soldier Field, along with the number 51 of his teammate, legendary linebacker Dick Butkus. In 1999, despite the brevity of his career, he was ranked #21 on The Sporting News's list of the 100 Greatest Football Players.
Sayers' friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo, and Piccolo's struggle with cancer (embryonal cell carcinoma, a type of cancer, found as a large tumor in his chest cavity which would eventually result in his death), became the subject of the made-for-TV movie Brian's Song. The movie, in which Sayers was portrayed by Billy Dee Williams in the 1971 original, and by Mekhi Phifer in the 2001 remake, was adapted from Sayers' own telling of this story in his 1971 autobiography I Am Third.
A notable aspect of Sayers' friendship with Piccolo, a white man, and the first film's depiction of their friendship, was its effect on race relations. The first film was made in the wake of racial riots and charges of discrimination across the nation. Sayers and Piccolo were devoted friends and deeply respectful of and affectionate with each other. Piccolo helped Sayers through rehabilitation after injury, and Sayers was by Piccolo's side throughout his illness.