One of the most explosive and talented football players in professional football history, Sayers was limited to just seven seasons with the Chicago Bears due to injuries and barely even played in the final two.
After attending high school in Nebraska at Omaha Central High School, Sayers returned home to Kansas to play college football.
As a member of the Kansas Jayhawks, Sayers, known as the Kansas Comet, was great as a two-time Consensus All-American. He rushed for 2,675 yards and 18 touchdowns in three seasons, averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
Sayers’ playmaking ability immediately translated to the NFL after being selected in the first round with the fourth overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He was picked right after fellow Bear legendary linebacker Dick Butkus — the third overall pick.
The 6-foot, 200-pounder was also selected fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 1965 AFL Draft.
Sayers could have stayed close to home with the Chiefs, which would have made sense because he was born in Wichita, Kansas and attended college at the University of Kansas. However, he would sign with the Bears and play his home games in Chicago, Illinois at Wrigley Field.
In his rookie season, Sayers had one of the best debuts in NFL history. He rushed for 867 yards and 14 touchdowns, caught 29 passes for 507 yards and six touchdowns, and had a punt return and kickoff return for touchdowns.
The best game of his career came against the San Francisco 49ers when Sayers matched an NFL record with six touchdowns. He rushed for 113 yards and four touchdowns on nine attempts, caught two passes for 89 yards and a score, and also returned five punts for 134 yards and a touchdown.
His 22 touchdowns as a rookie were an NFL record and wouldn’t be topped for another 10 years. He was obviously awarded the NFL Rookie of the Year award for his great play.
Sayers then would follow that up with his best regular-season on the ground in his pro career the very next season, rushing for 1,231 yards and eight touchdowns, while also catching 34 passes for 447 yards and two touchdowns. He also returned two kickoffs for touchdowns.
What made Sayers so great was not just his ability to run the ball from the backfield, but he could also destroy a team in different ways. He was one of the most dangerous kick-returners of all time and also being extremely talented catching the ball out of the backfield.
In 1967, Sayers missed just one game of the season, but was still selected to the Pro Bowl and as an All-Pro. In 1968, the first season after George Halas left the team as head coach, he missed the final five games due to a right knee injury, but he had a career-high in yards-per-game at 95.1.
In 1969, He played in all 14 games and rushed for an NFL-high 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns. This great season earned him his fourth Pro Bowl selection and fifth First-Team All-Pro selection as well as the NFL’s Comeback Player of the Year.
Unfortunately, that would be his last great season.
Due to left knee injury in the preseason, Sayers would only play in two games during the 1970 season and then just another two games in 1971 before retiring.
This time period is also when his friendship with Brian Piccolo became known and was turned into the movie, Brian’s Song.
How Great Could He Have Been?
Sayers played in just 68 games throughout his NFL career. For comparison, Emmitt Smith played in 226 and Walter Payton played in 190. Even Barry Sanders, who retired early from the NFL, played in 153 games.
Only seven players have averaged more rushing yards per attempt during a career than Sayers’ 5.0 average. Three of those are quarterbacks.
If we could take away those final two years of injured seasons and got 10 healthy, or at least decently healthy, seasons from Sayers where he played 128 games, twice as many as he played in his first five, he would have rushed for 9,732 yards if he continued to average about 76 yards per game like he did in those All-Pro seasons.
Even though that number would have been just 32nd on the NFL’s All-Time Rushing List, his rushing stats aren’t what made him great. He was a really good receiver, too, and great return specialist. With another 60-plus games, what damage could he have done if his body held up?
In five seasons, he had 9,435 all-purpose yards, which is 178th on the all-time list. His 6,263 yards from scrimmage don’t rank very high in NFL history, but even just two more seasons would probably have him in the top-200.
If you take his rushing yards per game average and multiply it by 226 — the number of games Smith played in — Sayers would have finished with 17,183 yards, over 400 yards more than Payton finished his career with. Now, obviously, if Sayers played more than 10 seasons, his body would have definitely been beat up and he wouldn’t have been averaging as many yards per game, but he was also averaging five-less rushing attempts per game than Smith did throughout his career and never made the playoffs, reducing the mileage on his legs.
There is a serious case to be made that if Gale Sayers was even remotely healthy for double-digit seasons, he would be seen in a much different way, possibly as one of the best running backs and all-around players in NFL History.
He was a Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee in 1977, the youngest player to ever be selected, so he obviously receives a ton of credit as a great player.
However, over a half-century later, it is easy to forget his greatness in conversations about the best backs of all time.