Last month the world of football lost one of its most valued treasures with the death of 77-year-old Gale Sayers, a Hall of Fame running back for the Chicago Bears. Sayers had been suffering from the effects of dementia for the last four years, which contributed to his death. A phenomenal player, Gayle played only six seasons in the NFL, all with the Bears. What he accomplished in such a short span of time was unheralded at the time. A two-time All American out of Kansas University, Gayle was the 4th pick in the first round of the 1965 NFL draft. His experience as a Bear was portrayed in the 1971 made for TV movie “Brian’s Song.” The movie chronicles his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo who passed away from cancer in 1970.
Gayle Sayers was born in Wichita, Kansas but raised in Omaha, Nebraska. In high school, Gayle lettered in both football and track and field as did his brothers Roger and Ron. Highly recruited, Sayers settled on being a Kansas Jayhawk. In those days, freshmen were not allowed to play on the varsity team. So, when Gayle began playing his sophomore year, he turned the NCAA on its ear over the next three years. He amassed 4020 all-purpose yards, which included 2675 rushing yards from the line of scrimmage. In 1965, George Halas took a gamble and drafted Sayers in the first round as the fourth overall pick. As a rookie reporting to camp that summer, he was roomed with Brian Piccolo, which was a rare occurrence pairing a black player with a white teammate.
Gayle’s rookie year in 1965 was something legends are made of. Sayers scored 22 touchdowns that year, an NFL record. He gained 2,272 all-purpose yards with 1371 yards from the line of scrimmage. Against the Minnesota Vikings, he scored a rushing touchdown, a kickoff return for a touchdown, and a receiving touchdown, which is a rare accomplishment. Over the next four years, his career continued to flourish with rushing titles and awards. In 1968, Sayers received a devastating injury to his right knee, which sidelined him for the remainder of the season. The following season he rushed for over 1,000 yards and was named the Comeback Player of the Year. Another devastating injury to his left knee sidelined him again in 1971. In an attempt to come back later that season, he experienced an ankle injury that forced him into retirement.
I met Gayle on several occasions during the ’90s when we both attended JPL conferences. He had formed a computer software company, “Sayers 40, Inc,” while I was working to secure a governmental contract for my company. A proud but humble man, we would exchange pleasantries over lunch as we were two of only a few minorities attending these events. I only wish I had stayed connected over the years as a budding entrepreneur. Many saw Gayle Sayers, the football hero whose story was played out on the small screen. But the reality is that he was just a regular guy who accomplished a great deal on and off the field.
And while I am saddened by his passing like so many people, I embrace the legacy that Gayle Sayers leaves behind. That regardless of the obstacle, work hard, stay focused strategically, and respect the outcome. And most important, maintain your integrity and be decent and kind to those you come in contact with.