By Patrik Walker
There’s no way to reasonably discuss a list of the best running backs in football history without bringing up Gale Sayers. The legendary Chicago Bears ball carrier was a tour de force whenever he strapped on his helmet, and the world is made darker by news having arrived on Wednesday that he died at age 77. The reason for his death has not been released. In a statement issued by Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker on Wednesday, Sayers’ accomplishments as both a player and a man will be honored accordingly.
“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,” Baker said. “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. The ‘Kansas Comet’ burst onto the scene in the National Football League and captured the attention of all of America.
“Despite playing only 68 NFL games because of an injury-shortened career, Gale was a clear-cut — and first-ballot — Hall of Famer for his accomplishments on the field and for the man of character he was in life. The entire Pro Football Hall of Fame family mourns the passing of Gale. Our thoughts and prayers are with his wide, Ardie, and their entire family. We will forever keep his legacy alive to serve as inspiration for future generations.
“The Hall of Fame flag will fly at half-staff until he is laid to rest.”
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued the following statement:
“The NFL family lost a true friend today with the passing of Gale Sayers. Gale was one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game’s most exciting players. Gale was an electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball. The earned his place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer. We will also forever remember Gale for his inspiration and kindness. Gale’s quiet, unassuming demeanor belied his determination, competitiveness and compassion. We send our heartfelt condolences to his wife, Ardie, and their family. Our thoughts are with his teammates, the Bears organization, the many fans who remember him as a football player and the many more people who were touched by Gale’s spirit and generosity.”
Sayers was drafted by both the AFL and the NFL in 1965, as fourth- and fifth-overall pick, respectively, evidence of how elite of a back he was coming out of the University of Kansas. A two-time Consensus All-American for the Jayhawks and three-time All-Big Eight talent, he’d land with the Bears and burst right out of the gate en route to NFL Rookie of the Year honors, then going on to rack up four Pro Bowl nods, five First-Team All-Pro awards, NFL Comeback Payer of the Year and led the league in rushing yards on two separate occasions (1966 and 1969).
One of the greatest players of all-time, Sayers has since been named to the NFL 1960s All-Decade Team as well as the league’s 50th, 75th and 100th Anniversary Team, and both his collegiate (No. 48) and pro football jersey (No. 40) numbers have been retired. A member of both the College and Pro Football Hall of Fame, Sayers career may have ended prematurely due to injury, but there can be no mistaking his impact on the game.
A dual-threat back who could catch out of the backfield as effectively as he could take a handoff, Sayers was the prototype for those we see today tasked with doing the same — although often with nowhere near his ability. The football community as a whole mourns this day, but Sayers will never be forgotten, having been immortalized long before his passing.