It’s never easy waking to news that someone special has died, yet I found myself smiling amid the sadness after learning that Gale Sayers had passed away this morning at age 77.
Sayers, the Hall of Fame running back whose spectacular career with the Bears was cut short by injury, is one of the primary reasons I love football. He showed me how the game could transcend sport.
I was 8 years old and didn’t follow football that closely in 1971 when I sat on the floor to watch “Brian’s Song” on a grainy black-and-white TV in the living room of our Northern California home. The movie depicted the relationship between Sayers and Brian Piccolo, men who had every right to hate each other yet built a relationship that grew in love.
They were the same age, on the same team, playing the same position, with the same desire to be the featured ballcarrier for their iconic franchise. But they were also very different in that Sayers was Black and Piccolo white, at a time when the civil rights movement was in the middle rounds of its heavyweight fight with the government, and the NFL — less than a decade removed from its final team integrating — was still searching for racial harmony.
In the end, a complicated relationship was distilled into something pure and sweet. They went from being competitors to being friends, from being teammates to being brothers. It was a love story more than a football story. I cried when Piccolo died of cancer at the age of just 26, but I also found inspiration in the journey he took with Sayers. There were lessons about perseverance and tolerance, humanity and love, all beautifully captured in Sayers’ 1970 acceptance speech after winning the George S. Halas Courage Award.
Sayers had sustained a devastating knee injury the previous year and some questioned whether he would ever be the same. At times he went through periods of self-doubt, if not self-pity. Piccolo was there to pick him up and to push him, even while battling cancer himself. That next season, Sayers rushed for 1,032 yards in 14 games. When he accepted the Halas award in New York City, his thoughts were about Piccolo, not himself.
“He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent — cancer,” Sayers said of Piccolo. “He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. 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.”
The moment reflected just how special Sayers was as a man, however the film also introduced me to how special he was as a player. He was known as the Kansas Comet (he attended the University of Kansas) because of his otherworldly ability to dart and dash his way through defenses. Trying to describe his playmaking style is like trying to explain sound to a deaf person.
At times, Sayers’ legs seemed to separate from his body, which he could contort in such a way that defenders were left to tackle air. His career lasted only seven seasons and 68 games because of injury, but his talent was so sublime that he was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility and remains the youngest (age 34) to ever be inducted.
That remains a significant feat. Hall of Fame voters, of which I am one, place great importance on how long someone played. Seven seasons is considered a blink of an eye to some, a reality that speaks to why former Broncos star Terrell Davis — who easily ranks as the greatest running back in NFL postseason history — had to wait a decade for enshrinement. It’s why former Jaguars star Tony Boselli, arguably the best left tackle of his era, still is waiting to hear his name called. Both had stellar but injury-shortened careers.
Sayers was someone who could have played in any era. He likely would have been a strong contender for the No. 1 pick in any fantasy draft today because of his abilities as a runner, receiver and returner. He was Barry Sanders before Barry Sanders.
So, I smile amid the sadness, thankful and appreciative that I had the opportunity to not only be entertained by Sayers but educated by him about how to live a life with compassion, commitment and love — things we could use more of today.
Follow Jim Trotter on Twitter at JimTrotter_NFL.
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