Former Chicago Bears star Gale Sayers, considered one of the greatest running backs in the history of the NFL despite a career cut short by knee injuries, has died at age 77 after living with dementia.
Known as the "Kansas Comet," Sayers was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 despite playing just seven seasons, all with the Bears. At 34, he was the youngest player ever inducted.
"All those who love the game of football mourn the loss of one of the greatest to ever play this game with the passing of Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers," Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker said in a statement. "He was the very essence of a team player -- quiet, unassuming and always ready to compliment a teammate for a key block. Gale was an extraordinary man who overcame a great deal of adversity during his NFL career and life."
Sayers was a five-time All-Pro who averaged 5 yards per carry for his career and twice led the league in rushing, including in 1969 (1,032 yards) after having torn the ACL and MCL in his right knee late in the previous season.
"Will miss a great friend who helped me become the player I became because after practicing and scrimmaging against Gale I knew I could play against anybody," said Hall of Fame linebacker and former teammate Dick Butkus. "We lost one of the best Bears ever and more importantly we lost a great person."
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 Sayers and Butkus 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."
Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement Wednesday, "The NFL family lost a true friend today with the passing of Gale Sayers. Gale was one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game's most exciting players.
"Gale was an electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball. He earned his place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. We will also forever remember Gale for his inspiration and kindness. Gale's quiet unassuming demeanor belied his determination, competitiveness and compassion."
Bears chairman George McCaskey noted there was more to Sayers legacy than playing football.
"Football fans know well Gale's many accomplishments on the field: a rare combination of speed and power as the game's most electrifying runner, a dangerous kick returner, his comeback from a serious knee injury to lead the league in rushing, and becoming the youngest player inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. People who weren't even football fans came to know Gale through the TV movie"Brian's Song," about his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo. Fifty years later, the movie's message that brotherhood and love needn't be defined by skin color, still resonates," McCaskey said in a statement.
A major injury to Sayers' left knee in 1970 was too much for him to overcome, and he retired in 1971.
His career numbers of 4,956 yards and 39 touchdowns on the ground came primarily over five seasons, as he played sparingly in 1970 and '71.
As a returner, Sayers was also devastating, scoring six touchdowns and averaging more than 30 yards per kickoff return, with two touchdowns and 14.5 yards per punt return.
Legendary Bears coach George Halas, as he presented Sayers for his Hall induction, said, "If you want to see perfection as a running back, you best get ahold of a film of Gale Sayers. He was poetry in motion. His like will never be seen again."
Sayers was born in Wichita, Kansas, and was an All-American at Kansas. He was a first-round pick of Bears in 1965 and once scored six touchdowns in a game.
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.
The friendship between Sayers and backfield mate Piccolo began in 1967, when the two became unlikely roommates. 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 and was 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."
Williams said Wednesday: "My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers. Portraying Gale in Brian's Song was a true honor and one of the nightlights of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart. My sincerest condolences to his family."
Sayers was named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team in 1994 at halfback and kick returner, the only player named at two positions.
Sayers' family earlier this year discussed his experience with dementia.
His brother, Roger Sayers, told the Kansas City Star in a phone interview that it's "tough to build memories all your life, and the next thing you know, you don't remember anything."
After his playing days, Sayers served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and founded several technology and consulting businesses. He was also a philanthropist for several inner-city Chicago youth initiatives.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.