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Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers dies at age 77 following a battle with dementia

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Chicago Bears running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has died at age 77 following his battle with dementia. 

Despite playing just seven seasons due to knee problems, the ‘Kansas Comet’ as he was known became one of the NFL’s marquee players of the 1960s, averaging 5 yards a carry for his career, twice leading the league in rushing, and ultimately becoming the youngest Hall of Fame inductee in 1977 at age 34.

‘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.’

Relatives of Sayers had previously revealed that he was diagnosed with dementia. In March 2017, his wife, Ardythe, said she blamed his football career. 

‘Like the doctor at the Mayo Clinic said, “Yes, a part of this has to be on football,”‘ Ardythe Sayers told The Associated Press from their home Indiana home in 2017. ‘It wasn’t so much getting hit in the head. It’s just the shaking of the brain when they took him down with the force they play the game in.’ 

Chicago Bears running back and Pro Football Hall of Famer Gale Sayers has died at age 77 after recently battling dementia

Relatives of Sayers had previously revealed that he was diagnosed with dementia. In March 2017, his wife, Ardythe (left), said she partly blamed his football career

A two-time All-American at Kansas, Sayers was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as well. He was selected by Chicago with the fourth pick in 1965, and his versatility produced dividends and highlight-reel slaloms through opposing defenses right from the start

In addition to his bust at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Sayers was also immortalized on screen, where he was portrayed by Billy Dee Williams in the 1971 made-for-TV movie ‘Brian’s Song.’

The tear-jerking film told the story of the unlikely friendship between the famously quiet Sayers and teammate Brian Piccolo, a boisterous fullback played by James Caan. Piccolo was diagnosed with terminal cancer after turning pro in 1965, which was also Sayers’s rookie season, and ultimately passed away in 1970. 

The TV movie was so popular that it was ultimately released in theaters.   

The friendship between Sayers and backfield mate Piccolo began in 1967, when the two became unlikely roommates. In an era of sometimes tense race relations, 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 later in ‘Brian’s Song.’

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.’

In addition to his bust at the Pro Football Hall, Sayers was also immortalized by actor Billy Dee Williams in the tear-jerking made-for-TV movie, Brian’s Song

Brian’s Song told the story of the unlikely friendship between the famously quiet Sayers and teammate Brian Piccolo (left), a boisterous fullback played by James Caan. Piccolo was diagnosed with terminal cancer after turning pro in 1965, which was also Sayers’s rookie season, and ultimately passed away in 1970. The TV movie was so popular that it was ultimately released in theaters

In this June 19, 1970, file photo. Chicago Bears teammates of Brian Piccolo carry his coffin into Christ the King Church for funeral services in Chicago. From left, front to back, are Randy Jackson, Dick Butkus, and Gale Sayer. Ed O’Bradovich is at right. Hall of Famer Gale Sayers, who made his mark as one of the NFL’s best all-purpose running backs and was later celebrated for his enduring friendship with a Chicago Bears teammate with cancer, has died. He was 77. Nicknamed ‘The Kansas Comet’ and considered among the best open-field runners the game has ever seen, Sayers died Wednesday

Sayers went on to become a stockbroker, sports administrator, businessman and philanthropist for several inner-city Chicago youth initiatives. He also served as athletic director at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale and founded several technology and consulting businesses.

But for all of his quiet respectability off the field, Sayers was a blur to opposing defenses on the gridiron, ghosting would-be tacklers or simply outrunning them as few running backs or kick returners could. 

A two-time All-American at Kansas, Sayers was also inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame as well. He was selected by Chicago with the fourth pick overall in 1965, and his versatility produced dividends and highlight-reel slaloms through opposing defenses right from the start.

He tied one NFL record with six touchdowns in a game and set another with 22 touchdowns in his first season: 14 rushing, six receiving, one punt and one kickoff return. Sayers was a unanimous choice for Offensive Rookie of the Year.

Sayers followed that by being voted an All-Pro during the first five of his seven NFL seasons (1965-71). But he was stuck on a handful of middling-to-bad Bears teams and, like Dick Butkus, another Hall of Fame teammate selected in the same 1965 draft, he never played in the postseason. Sayers appeared in only 68 games total and just two in each of his final two seasons while attempting to return from those knee injuries.

Gale Sayers tosses out the first pitch at a Chicago Cubs game in 2014 

In this October 27, 1969, file photo, Sayers (40) runs for a 28-yard gain against the LA Rams

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.

In this July 30, 1977, file photo, former Chicago Bears star Gale Sayers poses after his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio

‘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 them 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.’

Sayers made the 130-mile trip from his home in Indiana to attend the opening ceremony of the Bears’ 100th-season celebration in June 2019, receiving a rousing ovation.

‘It’s amazing someone that was so beautiful and gifted and talented as a player and later in life to have that happen to you is really, I know, tough on everybody,’ Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said that weekend.

‘It’s tough on his teammates, former teammates. It’s tough on the league. And as a player,’ Singletary concluded, ‘it just makes you take a step back and thank God every day for your own health and blessings.’

In this June 2, 2004, file photo, Gale Sayers addresses a luncheon sponsored by the College Football Hall of Fall in South Bend, Indiana

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