Gale Eugene Sayers is a retired professional football player who spent six seasons in the NFL, all with the Chicago Bears. During his time with the Bears, he became the first African American player to have a white roommate, Brian Piccolo, and his close friendship with Piccolo became the basis for the award-winning TV movie Brian’s Song.
After injuries prematurely ended his football career, Sayers had a successful career in business. He has been married twice and has three children and six grandchildren. He married his first wife, the former Linda McNeil, in 1962, while he was still in college. They had a daughter and two sons and divorced in 1973. He married his second wife, the former Ardythe Bullard, later that same year.
No Stopping the Kansas Comet
Sayers was a highly recruited high school football player, and he ended up signing with the University of Kansas, where he played halfback from 1961 to 1964. He wore the number 48 and earned the nickname “The Kansas Comet.” During his sophomore and junior years from 1962 to 1963, he led the Big 8 Conference in rushing yards, with 1,125 yards in 1962, including a 99-yard touchdown run against the team’s rival, the University of Nebraska, and 917 yards in 1963.
For his full college career, Sayers led the Big 8 in rushing yards per carry for three years, and he also led the entire NCAA with 7.1 rushing yards per carry in 1962. He was named an All-American during both his junior and senior years, and he won the Big 8’s Back of the Year award his junior year.
Double First Round Draft Pick
Two rival leagues — the National Football League (NFL) and the now defunct American Football League (AFL) — drafted Sayers in the first rounds of their respective drafts. Sayers chose the NFL’s Chicago Bears, and he played for the Bears from 1965 to 1971. In the NFL, he gained a reputation for his ability to push through defensive lines and change directions quickly and was consistently hard to tackle.
In 1966, Sayers led the NFL with 1,231 rushing yards and 2,440 total yards. The NFL named him the league’s most valuable player in 1967, 1968 and 1970. A knee injury sidelined him in 1969 and again in 1970, and he retired in 1971.
Sayers’ career statistics speak for themselves — 4,956 total rushing yards, 1,307 total receiving yards and 2,781 kickoff return yards. His career was cut short, but he still earned a spot in the NFL Hall of Fame in 1977.
The Friendship That Inspired Brian's Song
Sayers made history when he was paired with white teammate Brian Piccolo to share a room on the road. They were the first two NFL players of different races to room together, and they became good friends, despite their personality differences. Piccolo helped Sayers rehabilitate after his knee injury, and Sayers stayed by his friend’s side after he found out he had testicular cancer in 1970. Piccolo passed away that same year.
Sayers wrote about his friendship with Piccolo in his 1970 autobiography I Am Third, and the story became the basis for the 1971 made-for-television movie Brian’s Song, which starred James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers. The film was nominated for seven Emmy awards and won four of them.
Life After the NFL
After his NFL career ended, Sayers finished his undergraduate and master’s degrees at the University of Kansas and went into athletics administration at the university level. He spent five years as athletic director at Southern Illinois University, from 1976 to 1981, and he served as interim athletic director at Tennessee State University in 1985 and 1986.
Sayers later went on to start businesses of his own. He formed a sports marketing and public relations firm and started a company that provides supplies for computer products. He has also served on the boards of numerous corporations and nonprofit organizations, and he has participated in USO tours to entertain American troops overseas.
Tackled by Dementia
In 2017, Sayer’s second wife, Ardythe “Ardie” Sayers, revealed that the football great had been suffering from dementia since 2013. Doctors believe that the head trauma Sayers experienced in his football playing years probably contributed to his degenerative brain issues.
Ardie Sayers said that her husband is physically healthy, but he suffers from memory loss and is unable to perform simple tasks like signing his name. The Sayers’ filed a lawsuit against the NFL for damages that he sustained throughout his career.