SALT LAKE CITY — Gale Sayers might be remembered as much today for his connection to the movie “Brian’s Song” as he is for his considerable exploits on the football field. The movie is one of the greatest sports films ever made, if it could even be labeled as such. Sports was merely the medium for portraying friendship and the potential for men of disparate races, personalities and backgrounds to form a deep connection.
During the mid-1960s, at the height of the civil rights struggle, Sayers, a Black man, and teammate Brian Piccolo, a White man, formed a friendship. They became the first Black and White players to share a room on the road. Their friendship blossomed when Sayers was recovering from a devastating knee injury and deepened when Piccolo was fighting a losing battle for his life against cancer.
Upon receiving the George S. Halas Courage Award for his comeback in 1969 from a terrible knee injury, Sayers gave a moving speech about his friend. It’s worth reading all of his remarks, but here are a few of them:
“ … Now you flatter me by giving me this award, but I say to you here and now, Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas Award. It’s mine tonight — and Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo. And I’d like all of you to love him too. And tonight, you hit your knees. Please, ask God to love him.”
Piccolo died a few weeks later.
When Sayers passed away at 77 this week, it was nice to imagine that those two had a joyous reunion in the next life.
Piccolo had joined the Bears as a free agent and served as Sayers’ backup. He replaced him when Sayers was injured and then moved to fullback and played alongside his friend when Sayers returned for the 1969 season. After scoring a touchdown in the ninth game, Piccolo asked to be removed from the game and complained that it was difficult to breathe. Seven months later he was dead.
Sayers was never the same player after that.
A little background: There have been few players who have had more raw talent than Sayers. As they are wont to do, fans and media tend to favor contemporary players in evaluating the game’s best, but athletes must be measured against those of their own generation — even those who played before turf, before TV, before PEDs, before weight training, before million-dollar contracts, before career-prolonging surgical advances.
It doesn’t help Sayers’ case that his career really consisted of less than five seasons. Midway through the 1968 season — only his fourth in the league — Sayers planted his right foot to cut upfield and was hit on that knee by Kermit Alexander, tearing cartilage and two ligaments. This was long before doctors could truly repair such injuries. Nowadays, Adrian Peterson can tear an ACL and come back months later and rush for a league-leading 1,400 yards. But in the ’60s it meant the end of a career or a serious reduction in ability.
“The injury was only serious because they had to saw through muscles and nerves,” said Sayers.
He returned in 1969 and played all 14 games, rushing for a league-leading 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns, but his speed, cutting and acceleration were clearly diminished. It is a testament to his talent that he was able to play as well as he did, with a bum knee. Before the 1970 season started, Sayers injured the left knee. He tried to play anyway even though it was obvious he was injured, and then he reinjured the knee. He underwent more surgery and attempted to return in 1971, but he injured an ankle. He retired. In his final two seasons he played in only four games and rushed for 90 yards and zero touchdowns.
His final statistics don’t look like Hall of Fame material at first glance — 4,996 yards and 39 touchdowns, but a closer look reveals more. In a short span (1965 to 1969), he averaged five yards per carry, returned six kickoffs and two punts for touchdowns and caught nine touchdown passes, giving him a total of 56 touchdowns in 41⁄2 seasons — that’s 56 touchdowns in 68 games.
Sayers was inducted into the Hall of Fame at the age of 34, making him the youngest inductee ever. Despite his short career, he was named to the NFL’s 50th, 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time teams.
Sayers was unstoppable in the open field, weaving in and out of traffic, feinting, cutting, dodging, sprinting. For the defense it was like trying to catch a border collie. “Give me 18 inches of daylight; that’s all I need,” he once said.
As a rookie in 1965, he scored 22 touchdowns in 14 games — 14 rushing, six receiving, one punt return, one kick return. He had only 166 rushing attempts, which means he scored a touchdown every 11.8 carries. When O.J. Simpson finally broke Sayers’ season-touchdown record with 23 in 1975, he had 329 rushing attempts.
That year Sayers set the still-standing record of six touchdowns in one game and easily could have had a seventh except his coach pulled him out of the game with the Bears on the goal line, allowing a teammate to score instead. Sayers took a screen pass 80 yards for a touchdown, then scored on runs of 21, 7, 50 and 1 yard, followed by a punt return of 85 yards for his sixth touchdown.
“The greatest performance in the National Football League history was that performance,” said Mike Ditka, Sayers teammate and a future Bears head coach.
“NFL players … were just highway cones for this guy to run around,” one observer said.
One can only wonder what he might have done had he played on a good team or if surgical techniques had been more advanced. But he made his lasting mark, through his athleticism and the friendship he struck up with his teammate.