Gale Sayers, Running Back, 1965-1971
Gale Sayers was nicknamed the "Kansas Comet" years before he knew he would leave small towns in the heartland for the bright lights of Chicago. But after his sparkling, brief career, the nickname seemed much more fitting.
Sayers was born in rural Kansas, and his family migrated to Omaha, NE, before his high school years. After a star-studded four years at Omaha Central, Sayers turned down offers from several other colleges to play at the University of Kansas. There in Lawrence, the running back would be named an all-American player twice, and finished with 2,675 yards rushing.
In the 1965 draft, Sayers was not only picked by the Bears with their fourth selection of the first round, but also selected in the first round by the Kansas City Chiefs of the AFL. Sayers wasn't even the Bears' first selection that season: they also held the third pick, which they used on Illinois linebacker Dick Butkus. Sayers ended up turning down more money with the Chiefs to play with the established NFL.
According to the Sayers Hall of Fame article on www.chicagobears.com, Bears coach George Halas decided to bring Sayers along slowly his rookie season. Some scouts felt that despite his electrifying college career, Sayers wouldn't be tough enough to last in the NFL. In the 1965 College All-Star game at Soldier Field, coach Otto Graham refused to play Sayers, saying he thought the player exaggerated a practice injury.
With second-year running back Andy Livingston and 1962 NFL Rookie of the Year Ron Bull holding down the fort, Sayers didn't have to start the 1965 season, but couldn't be held off long. The rookie scored his first pro touchdown in a game two loss at the Los Angeles Rams on an 18-yard run, and that was just the beginning of perhaps the greatest rookie season any offensive player in the NFL has posted.
The young phenom would go on to score 22 touchdowns: 14 rushing, 6 receiving and 2 on returns, and compile a combined 1,347 rushing and receiving yards. At Wrigley Field against the San Francisco 49ers in December, Sayers tied an NFL record with six total touchdowns on the muddiest field one could ever imagine. Sayers would later remark that he must have been the only player on the field from either side to have any footing, because he had it and no one else did.
Following Sayers' impressive performance, Chicago lost the final game of the season at home to the Minnesota Vikings, missing a possible playoff spot at the same time. The rookie was voted the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year, and set an NFL record with his 22 total touchdowns.
The following year, 1966, proved to be Sayers' best. He rushed for 1,231 yards and caught passes for another 447. He scored 8 rushing touchdowns, 2 via receptions and another 2 on returns. In 1967 his rushing and receiving totals dropped, as he gained a combined 1,006 yards with 8 touchdowns on the ground and through the air, but did return a phenomenal three kicks for scores. The drop in his production was probably in large part due to an overall eroding of offensive talent on the Bears.
1968 started differently. Sayers' good friend and mentor, legendary coach George Halas, retired prior to the beginning of the season, turning over the reigns to former Bears player and longtime assistant Jim Dooley. In his introductory press conference, when asked what it would take for the Bears to win a championship, the new coach answered "our 1963 defense and our 1965 offense."
Indeed it did look like the Bears' 1965 offense, at least after the Bears started the season 1-4. After the poor start the Bears rebounded, winning three games in a row thanks in part to strong play by Sayers. By the ninth game of that season he had tallied 1,463 total yards and was averaging an astounding 6.2 yards per rush. But on November 10th, the Comet's patented running style came back to haunt him. After taking a pitch from quarterback Virgil Carter, Sayers was making one of his patented stop-on-a-dime cuts, when 49er cornerback Kermit Alexander drove devastatingly into the running backs' right knee. The Bears star tore all the ligaments in that knee, and was done for the rest of the season.
Surgery for knee injuries like Sayers' in 1968 was archaic by 21st century standards, so the rehabilitation the running back endured to get back on the field is stuff of legend. Prior to the 1967 season, the Bears had chosen to be the first NFL team to integrate roommates on the road, and Sayers lodged with the outspoken and good-natured Brian Piccolo. According to the storyline in Brian's Song, the movie made about Piccolo's battle with cancer, Piccolo played a large part in motivating Sayers during his rehabilitation. How much of this Hollywood portrayal of the rehab is true is debatable, but regardless Sayers was ready to play in 1969. And play Sayers did, returning with basically one leg to lead the NFL in not only yards rushing, but also attempts. He finished that dismal 1-13 Bears campaign with 1,032 of the toughest yards any NFL running back has gained. He won the NFL's most courageous player award in the spring of 1970, and famously accepted the award for Piccolo, then dying of cancer.
In 1970, thanks to another knee injury, the Comet was clearly done in only his sixth NFL season. He was only able to rush 23 times for 52 yards that year. In 1971 he attempted a comeback, and suffered another knee injury while chasing a defender after an interception. He attempted one more comeback during 1972's training camp, then finally gave up.
In 1977, Gale Sayers became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at the age of 34. He chose George Halas as his presenter.
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