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Gale Sayers

Named Nfl's Rookie Of The Year

Sayers made a spectacular debut in pro football, rushing for a total of 867 yards and 22 touchdowns during his rookie season. His outstanding performance earned Sayers Rookie of the Year honors as well as the NFL's scoring title for the year. The high point of Sayers's rookie season with the Bears came in a game against the San Francisco 49ers on December 12, 1965, when the running back rushed for six touchdowns on a cold and muddy football field in Chicago. He single-handedly gained 316 yards and scored 36 points, prompting teammate Mike Ditka to tell the NFL Insider: "Yeah, the mud affected the kid. If it had been dry out there, he would've scored 10 touchdowns." The rookie also managed to win a trip to the Pro Bowl.

As if to prove that his rookie season was no fluke, Sayers came back with a vengeance in 1966, rushing for a total of 1,231 yards to lead the league. Averaging 5.4 yards per rushing attempt, Sayers was once again selected to play in the Pro Bowl. The following year, he again earned All-Pro honors, rushing for 880 yards. Sayers also began to lay the groundwork for a life after football, taking a job as a stockbroker in Chicago during the off-season. In addition, he began to take a more active role in civic and humanitarian affairs, focusing particularly on programs to benefit underprivileged children.

Chronology

1943 Born in Wichita, Kansas, on May 30
1951 Moves with family to Omaha, Nebraska
1961-65 Attends University of Kansas
1962 Marries high school sweetheart Linda Lou McNeil (later divorced) on June 10
1965 Picked in first round of NFL draft by Chicago Bears
1971 Friendship with Brian Piccolo recounted in Brian's Song, a made-for-TV movie
1972 Retires from professional football
1973 Marries Ardythe Elaine Bullard on December 1
1973 Returns to University of Kansas as assistant athletic director

Related Biography: Football Player Brian Piccolo

Brian Piccolo, one of Sayers's closest friends and the subject of the made-for-television movie Brian's Song, was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, on October 21, 1943. As a young child, he moved with his family to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he attended high school, participating in a number of sports. But football was his first love, and after high school, he attended Wake Forest University in North Carolina on a football scholarship. As a senior at Wake Forest, he led the nation in rushing but nevertheless failed to get picked at the NFL's 1965 draft. Legendary Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas stepped in and signed Piccolo as a free agent.

Although he now wore a Bears uniform, Piccolo spent the 1965 football season on the team's practice squad and saw no real action. Although he played in all 14 games of the 1966 season, he rushed for only 12 yards on three carries. The following year, Piccolo gained a total of 317 yards. His big break came in 1968 when Sayers, already a close friend of Piccolo's, injured his knee in the ninth game of the season, putting him out of commission for the rest of the year. For the 1968 season as a whole, Piccolo rushed for 450 yards and scored his first two touchdowns in the NFL.

Just as his football career appeared ready to take off in a big way, a physical exam and follow-up tests in 1969 revealed that Piccolo had a rare form of lung cancer. In the months that followed, Sayers grew even closer to Piccolo, providing all the support he could during this difficult period. Piccolo died on June 16, 1970.

It was also during this period that his friendship with fellow running back Brian Piccolo began to grow stronger. It was in many respects a very unusual friend-ship indeed. Both men played the same position, which most often fuels rivalry rather than friendship. Sayers was African American and Piccolo was white. In 1967 the two roomed together during a preseason training camp in Alabama. Although they lived and practiced together, they could not go out in public and eat a meal comfortably during a period when the barriers of racial segregation had yet to be fully dismantled. When Piccolo was diagnosed with lung cancer in the fall of 1969, the bonds of friendship between the two men grew even stronger. Sayers was a pallbearer at Piccolo's funeral after his friend died on June 16, 1970.

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