Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame NFL runningback whose friendship with Chicago Bears teammate Brian Piccolo was memorialized in the 1971 TV movie “Brian’s Song,” has died at the age of 77.
According to the Associated Press, which confirmed his death through the Pro Football Hall of Fame, relatives of Sayers confirmed that he suffered from dementia in recent years.
Sayers played seven seasons for the Bears from 1965 to 1971, and was widely regarded as the best rusher of his era. “His days at the top of his game were numbered, but there was a magic about him that still sets him apart from the other great runningbacks in pro football,” wrote Red Smith, the Pulitzer Prize-winning sports journalist. “He wasn’t a bruiser like Jimmy Brown, but he could slice through the middle like a warm knife through butter, and when he took a pitchout and peeled around the corner, he was the most exciting thing in pro football.”
In “Brian’s Song,” which aired as an “ABC Movie of the Week,” Sayers was played by Billy Dee Williams, who starred opposite James Caan as Piccolo. The film was based on Sayers’ autobiography “I Am Third,” and helped launch the careers of both actors.
The movie documented the friendship between the two players, who initially competed for the Bears starting runningback job, then later shared a backfield when Piccolo was moved to fullback. Piccolo, who was white, would help Sayers, who was Black, rehab from a serious injury in 1968. Their friendship would continue through Piccolo’s death from cancer in 1970.
Williams wrote on Twitter Wednesday, “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 nightlights of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart. My sincerest condolences to his family.”