NFL Hall of Famer Sayers had short career but left long legacy

Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers played in only 68 games in the NFL. This photo is from 1970 in a game against the San Francisco 49ers in Chicago.
Chicago Bears running back Gale Sayers played in only 68 games in the NFL. This photo is from 1970 in a game against the San Francisco 49ers in Chicago.

The brilliance of Gale Sayers as a football player can best be summed up like this:

Due to a pair of crippling knee injuries and the primitive medical treatment of such injuries some 40 years ago, the iconic 1960s Chicago Bears halfback played only 68 games in the NFL.

Yet after he retired at age 29, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at 34.

A Hall of Famer. Off the work of 68 games.

"I think that says I was probably a pretty good football player," Sayers said, chuckling, over the phone Monday morning.

Sayers will be in Lexington this weekend to become the fifth recipient of the Blanton Collier Award. Named for the former Cleveland Browns and University of Kentucky football coach, the award goes "to someone who exemplifies integrity in football and in their life after football," says Kay Collier McLaughlin, one of the late coach's daughters. "Gale epitomizes that."

For all of us who are too young to remember 1960s pro football, Sayers lives mostly through NFL Films highlight packages.

His contemporaries claim that, to this day, there has never been a player as dynamic with a ball under his arm as Gale Sayers. Imagine the cut-back running of a Barry Sanders, the game-breaking returns of a Devin Hester and the ability to catch passes out of the backfield of a Marshall Faulk all wrapped into one package.

That is a pretty close approximation to Sayers.

"There really has never been anybody else like him, even to this day," Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau told Sports Illustrated for a 2010 profile of Sayers.

Says Sayers: "I was blessed with a gift. My first year in pro football, I scored 22 touchdowns. I'm not sure people had ever seen anyone who could do all the things I could do. I would go out and return a kick, and sometimes I'd return it 40, 45 yards. Then, the first four plays from scrimmage, I'd get the ball. You had to be in shape to do that, and I was."

Sayers' football star shone so long ago, he says when he is recognized in airports now it is more often due to the movie Brian's Song than to his playing career.

The 1971 movie (remade in 2001) told the story of the friendship of Sayers and fellow Bears running back Brian Piccolo. In the racially charged 1960s, Sayers, a black man from the Midwest, and Piccolo, a white player from the South, started out as rivals and grew to be friends.

After Sayers suffered his first debilitating knee injury in 1968, it was Piccolo who helped him through a grueling rehabilitation. In a 1970 autobiography, Sayers detailed the relationship between him and Piccolo.

The next year, Piccolo died from lung cancer.

Brian's Song (which starred Billy Dee Williams as Sayers and James Caan as Piccolo in the original) told the story of a friendship that was cut short far too soon.

It's a five-hankie tearjerker.

Sayers says he thinks the emotional wallop "comes from the fact that a football player gets cancer and dies. That just doesn't happen to a football player, a basketball player, it doesn't happen."

The fact that it portrayed a black man and a white man becoming close at a turbulent time in U.S. history when the country perhaps yearned to see symbols of unity is less the explanation for the enduring popularity of the film, Sayers says.

"That may be some of it," he says. "But our actual friendship, (Piccolo) was just a good guy, a nice guy. That's why we were friends. We weren't making any statements."

His pro football career over so early in life, Sayers needed a Plan B.

Turns out, he had one — and then a Plan C.

Sayers started out working in college sports administration, first at his alma mater, Kansas, then, in 1976, as the athletics director at Southern Illinois University.

In 1984, he left college sports to start his own business. Today, at 68, he is CEO of Sayers40 Inc., which supplies information technology services to other companies from its base in suburban Chicago.

Inside the Windy City, The Gale Sayers Center provides an after-school facility that teaches leadership skills for children ages 8 to 12.

The guy whose pro football brilliance lasted only 68 games says he does not feel cheated.

"They didn't have the knowledge back then we have now on how to treat (knee problems)," Sayers said. "A lot of guys back then, the treatment probably made them worse. To some extent, that probably happened to me.

"But I had a gift for football, I got to show it, and then when it ended I had a plan to move on."