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Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers, known by many for movie 'Brian's Song,' dead at 77

The "Kansas Comet's" friendship with dying teammate Brian Piccolo was depicted in the movie "Brian's Song."
Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears in 1970.
Gale Sayers of the Chicago Bears in 1970.AP

Legendary running back Gale Sayers, whose friendship with a dying teammate was depicted in the movie, "Brian's Song," died on Wednesday, officials said.

The Hall of Fame player was 77.

The "Kansas Comet" played seven seasons with the Chicago Bears and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, but he was also known by many for the movie that told the story of his friendship with dying teammate Brian Piccolo.

Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker said of Sayers: "He was the very essence of a team player – quiet, unassuming and always ready to compliment a teammate for a key block. Gale was an extraordinary man who overcame a great deal of adversity during his NFL career and life."

Sayers ran for five yards per carry, ranking him among the game’s all-time greats like Jim Brown and Barry Sanders. Injuries shortened his career to just 68 games over seven seasons from 1965 to 1971.

But Sayers’ place in NFL lore was cemented by his friendship with Piccolo, in a relationship brought to life by actors Billy Dee Williams and James Caan in the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.”

Billy Dee Williams and James Caan in "Brian's Song."Walt Disney TV via Getty Images

Sayers, who was Black, and the white Piccolo became friends and roommates when the team was on the road. The interracial pairing was considered groundbreaking in the late 1960s.

Piccolo was stricken with an aggressive form of testicular cancer that would eventually take his life on June 16, 1970. He was just 26 years old.

Just three weeks before Piccolo’s death, Sayers spoke at the Pro Football Writers Awards Dinner in New York City, accepting the 1969 George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award for overcoming a serious knee injury to lead the league in rushing.

Sayers used that platform to pay tribute to his dying friend.

“Compare his courage with the kind I’m supposed to possess,” Sayers said that night. “There was never any doubt that I’d return, knee injury or no. But think of Brian and his fortitude in the months since last November, in and out of hospitals, hoping to play football again, but not too sure at any time what the score was or might be. He has the heart of a giant. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life.”

“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo," Sayers said. "Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas Award. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow."

Playing in an era long before the internet and years ahead of 24-hour cable news, most Americans only know this famous line — “I love Brian Piccolo” — through Williams and “Brian’s Song.”

Sayers, a star at the University of Kansas where he earned the "Kansas Comet" nickname, was voted in to the Hall of Fame in 1977.

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