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Grainy Footage, 'Brian's Song' Live on as Tributes to Gale Sayers

Grainy Footage, 'Brian's Song' Live on as Tributes to Gale Sayers

09/25/2020
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By Bob Rauscher
Reprinted with permission

Gale Sayers died this week. His life, like his career, too short and over too soon. He played in the NFL for seven seasons. He lived for 77.

Sayers burst on the scene like a comet … The Kansas Comet … and the fire burned bright.

What does poetry in motion look like? For 68 games, Sayers showed us the answer over seven injury-plagued, yet magical, autumns.

Quiet off the field, confident and competitive on it.

He was the picture of class and dignity, whether in a Bears uniform, a business suit or the Hall of Fame gold blazer.

His on-field mastery preserved for generation after generation on NFL footage that looks so grainy now on wide screen, high-definition TVs.

Perhaps no game better exemplifies the greatness of Gale Sayers than a December 1965 game against the 49ers during his rookie season. On a muddy field that slowed mere mortals — teammates and opponents alike — No. 40 criss-crossed the field as if his cleats never touched the earth beneath them.

Eluding would-be tacklers, gilding past others and then sprinting into the end zone. Seemingly the only player on the field.

When the game was over Sayers’ six touchdowns tied the NFL record and left many claiming, to this day, that it was the greatest single-game performance in NFL history.

The fall of 1971 brought an end to Sayers’ NFL career but also brought us a story we’d never forget.

November 30, 1971. ABC’s Movie of the Week: “Brian’s Song.”

The story of Sayers’ relationship with his cancer-stricken teammate, Brian Piccolo.

Their jerseys were the same color. The color of their skin was not.

But for the first-ever interracial roommates in NFL history, their friendship, love and support were not defined by color.

For those of us of a certain generation, the memories of watching “Brian’s Song,” with tears slowly cascading down our cheeks, are etched indelibly on our mind.

In the movie, actor Billy Dee Williams portrayed Sayers. His final words to a dying Piccolo, played by James Caan, were, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

For Gale Sayers, tomorrow has come.

And in our mind’s eye, if you look toward the heavens, you just may see Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo running in slow motion, side by side, and smiling.

Just like in the movie.

Sayers was cursed with dementia, robbing him of the memories of his life and brilliant career.

We are blessed that those memories are kept alive by grainy old footage and a movie from our childhood that still brings a tear to our eye.

Bob Rauscher, a longtime friend of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and former Vice President, Production, at ESPN, penned this personal tribute to Gale Sayers. His long career at ESPN included serving as the network’s executive producer of the annual Hall of Fame Enshrinement show.

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