“The Lord is first; my friends are second and I am third.” – Gale Sayers
It is with great sadness that we announce the passing of Chicago Bear legend and Chicagoland Sports Hall of Fame member Gale Sayers. Mr. Sayers, age 77, passed Wednesday, September 23, 2020 after a long battle with dementia. He was the personification of class in sport and in life. Because of Gale’s exemplary display of charity, class and football accomplishments, we hold an annual honor in his name. NFL great Desmond Howard was our most recent recipient of the Gayle Sayers Award in 2019.
Nicknamed the Kansas Comet out of the University of Kansas, the All-American halfback was drafted 4th overall by George Halas and the Chicago Bears in 1965 and went on to win rookie of the year honors amassing an NFL rookie record of 22 touchdowns and 2,272 all-purpose yards. The overnight sensation and immediate impact superstar was famously quoted, “Give me 18 inches of daylight. That’s all I need.” Following his dynamic rookie season, Mr. Sayers went on to earn the NFL rushing title in his second season and five consecutive first-team All-Pro honors. In a storied career that was ultimately cut drastically short by knee injuries, he retired in 1972 and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 as the youngest inductee ever at the age of 34. A record that still holds today. Former teammate and Chicago Bear great Mike Ditka has said that Sayers was the greatest player he’s ever witnessed. High praise from a man that also coached Walter Payton. Sayers still holds the record for most rushing touchdowns in a game with six and his career kickoff return average of 30.56 yards is a record for players with at least 75 attempts. He is largely considered the best open field runner in the history of the game.
While his accomplishments on the field made him a name in football, it was Gale’s 1970 autobiography titled, “I Am Third” made into the 1971 television move “Brian’s Song” that made him a global star. The film starring Billy Dee Williams as Gayle Sayers and James Caan as Brian Piccolo documents the story of the two Chicago Bear teammates as Piccolo battles a terminal cancer diagnosis while they simultaneously break the color barrier together as the first interracial roommate duo the history of the NFL. 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, escalating racial tensions fueled by Martin Luther King’s assassination, 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 until his death in June 1970.
After his playing career ended, Sayers briefly worked as a television commentator and stockbroker and then for his alma mater, The University of Kansas. He was the athletic director at Southern Illinois University for five years before resigning in 1981.
He had several business ventures, including a successful computer supply company in the Chicago area named Sayers 40 Inc and was widely known for his philanthropy towards youth causes. He was a strong supporter of the Cradle Foundation an adoption organization in Evanston, IL and founded the Gale Sayers Center in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. The Gale Sayers Center is an after-school program for children ages 8–12 from Chicago's west side and focuses on leadership development, tutoring, and mentoring.
Sayers was married to Linda McNeil in 1962, during his freshman year in college; they were divorced in June 1973. That December he married Ardythe Elaine Bullard. She survives him. In addition to his stepson Guy, he is also survived by a daughter, Gale Lynne, and two sons, Timothy and Scott, from his first marriage; two other stepsons, Gaylon and Gary; two brothers, Roger, a former track and field star, and Ron, who played eight games as a running back for the San Diego Chargers in the N.F.L.; and two grandchildren.