The athlete's friendship with fellow teammate Brian Piccolo inspired the TV movie Brian's Song

By Georgia Slater
September 23, 2020 12:28 PM
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Gale Sayers
Credit: Getty

Gale Sayers, the NFL legend who earned a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after seven seasons, died on Wednesday. He was 77.

Hall of Fame president and CEO David Baker confirmed the news but did not release any additional details of his death. According to the New York Times, Sayers had been living with dementia for several years.

"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 wrote in a statement. "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 former running back, nicknamed "The Kansas Comet," was also known by many for inspiring the 1971 TV movie Brian's Song, which told the story of his friendship with fellow teammate Brian Piccolo, who was dying from terminal cancer at the time, according to The Washington Post.

Sayers and Piccolo were the first interracial roommates in NFL history. The athlete also detailed his relationship with Piccolo in his autobiography, I Am Third.

Brian's Song
Credit: Everett

Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, who played Sayers and Piccolo respectively, both earned Emmy nominations for their roles in the film.

"My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers. Portraying Gale in Brian's Song was a true honor and one of the [highlights] of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the kindest heart," Williams tweeted Wednesday.

Sayers was a first-round pick by the Bears in 1965. He continued to play for the Chicago team for seven seasons until he suffered a knee injury.

He completed his career with 39 touchdowns and 4,956 rushing yards, Fox News reported.

Despite his short run in the NFL, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 at only 34 years old — making him the youngest player to ever be inducted, ESPN reported.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Sayers an "electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball" in a statement on his death.

"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," he continued.

"We will also forever remember Gale for his inspiration and kindness. Gale's quiet unassuming demeanor belied his determination, competitiveness and compassion," Goodell added.

Gale Sayers
Credit: John M. Heller/Getty

Along with the Hall of Fame, Sayers was also named to the 1960s All-Decade Team, the 50th Anniversary All-Time Team, the 75th Anniversary All-Time Team, and the 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.

"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," Baker added in his statement.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Ardie, and their entire family," he continued.  "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.”