(Reuters) – Gale Sayers, the electrifying former Chicago Bears running back whose graceful moves earned him Hall of Fame honors and whose bond with a dying teammate was chronicled in the movie “Brian’s Song,” died on Wednesday at age 77, the National Football League said.
While playing only seven seasons in a career cut short by injury, Sayers earned five all-NFL selections as he accumulated 4,956 rushing yards from 1965 to 1971.
The numbers tell only a small part of the Kansas Comet’s story.
The fourth overall pick in the 1965 draft, Sayers was a threat to reach the end zone each time he touched the football, scoring a then record 22 touchdowns in his rookie season.
He would walk away with Rookie of the Year honors that year and was named a first-team All-Pro each of his first five seasons.
Sayers’ career was derailed by a series of horrific knee injuries that would ultimately force him into early retirement just before the 1972 season.
He still holds 20 Bears records and is a member of the NFL100 All-Time Team.
In 1977, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame at 34-years-old, the youngest former player ever welcomed into the shrine.
“Gale was one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game’s most exciting players,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in a statement. “Gale was an electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball.”
In 1969, the Bears instituted a policy of players rooming together by position. Sayers, making a comeback from knee surgery, was partnered with Brian Piccolo, a white free agent from Wake Forest, becoming the first interracial roommates in NFL history.
During the 1969 season, Piccolo was with diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma and died the following spring. Their relationship was made into a 1971 film with Sayers portrayed by Billy Dee Williams and Piccolo played by James Caan.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely in New York and Steve Keating in Toronto; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Bill Berkrot)