Like a twisting tornado on the Kansas plains from whence he came, the Chicago Bears' Gale Sayers swirled onto the National Football League scene in 1965, wreaking fearful havoc and destruction on every opposition defense that stood his way. The fluid, will-of-the wisp ball-carrying thrusts of the mercurial Sayers dazzled the pro football world in a manner that it had not experienced for a full 40 years, not since another whirling dervish runner, the fabled Red Grange, flashed into action, also as a Chicago Bear. There is no telling what the "Kansas Comet" might have attained not fate stepped in to neutralize the flashing feet that no defense could adequately contain. A right knee injury in the ninth game of the 1968 season was a foreshadow of things to come. Yet, more determined than ever, Gale underwent a tortuous rehabilitation program, and in 1969, rushed for his second 1,000 yard season and won universal NFL Comeback of the Year honors.
But a left knee injury sustained in the 1970 season effectively put a stop to the glittering career after just four-and-one-half seasons of full-time activity.
Even though he was named the top halfback in the NFL's first 50 years in 1969, there was concern for a time that Sayers' comparatively short playing span might prevent his eventual election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
But the Hall's Selection Committee never wavered in its resolve at the 1977 meeting, the first one in which Gale was eligible for consideration. The Committee's vote was unanimous and its summation simple: "There never was another to compare with him. What else is there to say!"
On July 30, 1977, Sayers joined his fellow 1977 enshrinees, Bart Starr, Bill Willis, Frank Gifford and Forest Gregg, in receiving the impressive induction rites on the front steps of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
From the time he first handled a football as a youngster, Sayers was a sensation. Born May 30, 1943, in Wichita, Kansas, he moved to Omaha, Nebraska, with his family in his early years. There he became an all-state football and track star at Omaha Central high school.
Heavily recruited by numerous colleges, Sayers picked the University of Kansas, where he enjoyed a sensational three-year career under Coach Jack Mitchell. While setting Big Eight records, Gale rushed for 2,675 yards, caught passes for 408 yards and added 835 yards on kick returns.
Sayers loomed as one of the top prizes in the raging AFL-NFL war in the mid 1960's. One of three first round draft picks of the Bears, Gale was also the No.1 choice of the Kansas City Chiefs. While Kansas City was closer to home, Gale opted for the NFL because he felt the older league could offer a better showcase for his exceptional talents.
Incredibly, it now seems, more than a few pro scouts questioned whether Gale could make it in the pros. Everyone recognized the Jayhawk all-America's natural abilities but some doubted that the 6-0, 200 pound speedster could stand the pounding that he was sure to face. Otto Graham, the 1965 College all-star coach, suspecting that Gale had exaggerated a practice injury, even declined to play him in the summer classic in Chicago.
Bears coach George Halas, more understanding of Gale's injury problems, opted to bring him along slowly to build his confidence as well as to heal his aches and pains. Sayers saw his first action in the third pre-season contest and started for the first time in regular season Game No. 3. Almost immediately, he flashed the comet-like form that soon was to shake up the entire NFL.
Against the Los Angeles Rams in pre-season, he scampered 77 yards on a punt return, 93 yards on a kickoff return and then surprised everyone with a 25-yard left handed pass for a touchdown as the Bears won, 28-14.
In his starting debut, Gale scored both Chicago touchdowns in a 23-14 loss to Green Bay. A week later against the Rams, he ran 80 yards with a screen pass and threw another touchdown pass as the Bears won, 31-6.
Rosey Grier, the Rams' great tackle, answered the skeptics who doubted the Kansas Comet could make it in the NFL. Speaking of hid 80-yard run, Grier pondered: "I hit him so hard. I thought my shoulder must have busted him in two. I heard a roar from the crowd and figured he fumbled. Then there he was, 15 yards away and going for the score."
Seven days later, Sayers scored four touchdowns as the Bears beat the Minnesota Vikings, 45-37. The game breaker was Gale's 96-yard kickoff return.
Still the best was to come!
On December 12, the next-to-last week of the season, playing on a muddy field that might have stalled most runners, Sayers scored a record-tying six touchdowns as the Bears annihilated the San Francisco 49ers, 61-20. His TDs came on an 80-yard pass reception, rushes of 21, 7, 50, and 1 yards, and an 85-yard punt return. For the day, the Bears ace amassed 336 combined yards.
"It was the greatest performance I have ever seen on the football field," an exuberant Halas, who had been watching NFL play for 46 seasons, proclaimed.
Sayers' rookie-season totals were staggering. He amassed 2,272 combined net yards and scored a record 22 touchdowns. A year later, he increased his combined net yards figure to a record 2,440 yards and led the NFL in rushing with 1,231 yards.
He continued to sizzle in 1967 and well into the 1968 campaign until, in the ninth game against, ironically, the same 49ers team that he had decimated as a rookie, Sayers suffered the first crippling injury of a series that would eventually end his career. On one of his familiar burst around end, Gale's right knee buckled as Kermit Alexander applied a clean, but crushing tackle. Massive ligament damage required immediate operation.
Gale, with almost complete intensity, undertook a strenuous leg-building program, determined that he would once again run as the Sayers of old. His pace in 1969 was slow at first but he finished with a rush and wound up with his second NFL rushing title with a 1,032-yard total. On a Chicago team that only won one game in 14, Sayers went over 100 yards four times, scored eight touchdowns and won a carload of "most courageous" type awards.
Much like the baseball pitcher who must perfect new deliveries after his first ball has waned, the Sayers of 1969 was still one of the NFL's most effective running backs but he no longer was the game-breaker that had startled the league such a short time ago.
As the Chicago Daily News observed, "Gone are that instant acceleration from medium to top speed and the incomparable ability to change directions on a dime without hesitation or loss of speed."
Backing up the News' Contention was the 1969 NFL record book which showed that Gale's longest rush was for only 28 yards. He did return one kickoff 52 yards, but he didn't score.
Still, the familiar No. 40 had enjoyed a remarkable season and it was not unreasonable to expect that he might improve even more in another season.
But fate struck again with cruel suddenness in a summer-season game against St. Louis Cardinals in 1970. Hit viciously hard by an eager Cardinal rookie on the kickoff team, Sayers suffered severe ligament damage once again, this time in his left knee.
Sayers delayed an operation and tried to play but could manage only 52 yards on 23 carries in two games. In mid-October and again in February, 1971, he underwent surgery to repair the damage.
Still determined, he tried once again in 1971 but could play only two games. Finally, after a desperate comeback attempt in the 1972 pre-season, Sayers reluctantly called it quits. By this time he had foot and ankle aliments to go along with the injured knees and the old magic had simply vanished.
But the marks he left behind will never vanish! In four-and-one-half heavy-duty campaigns, Gale totaled 9,435 combined net yards, 4,956 yards rushing and he scored 336 points. He still ranks as the NFL career leader in kickoff returns. He was named all-NFL five straight years from 1965 to 1969 and he played in four Pro Bowls. In three of them, he won Offensive Player of the Game honors!
Sayers at 34 is the youngest person ever elected in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His term of effective playing time is also the shortest of any Hall of Famers. Those facts stand out as two very strong testimonials to the gridiron greatness that came so quickly to Gale Sayers.
Bears Hall of Fame