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Know Your KU History: Gale Sayers

The Kansas Comet. Need we say more?

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

It’s an undisputed fact that Gale Sayers is the greatest football player to ever put on the crimson and blue of KU. The Wichita native arrived in Lawrence through Omaha where he set school records left and right at Central High School. He played for three years at Kansas and complied some staggering numbers.

Sayers started his KU career with a bang. Kansas went 6-3-1 in 1962, but if it weren’t for Sayers, the team’s record would have looked a lot worse. In KU’s ten games that season, The Kansas Comet ran for 1125 yards and seven touchdowns. He averaged 7.1 yards per carry. Why he carried the ball only 15 times per game that season is astonishing. That 7.1 average was the best in the country that year. He led the conference in rushing yards and was second nationally in yard from scrimmage with 1186. He also returned kicks for KU.

In his junior year, he ran the ball 132 times for 917 yards (that number led the league) and seven touchdowns. He also caught a pass for a TD and led the Big 8 in total touchdowns that season. His 1072 total yards from scrimmage led the country in 1963, and despite the fact that KU went a dismal 5-5 on the season, Sayers’ greatness consistently showed. He set an NCAA record that season with a 99-yard run against Nebraska and was a consensus pick for the All-American team that season.

Another of Sayers’ highlight reel moments came in the 1964 season. KU improved to 6-4, but individually, Sayers again took the spotlight. Against Oklahoma, Sayers returned a kickoff 96 yards to spring the upset of the Sooners. His rushing stats dipped a bit that senior season- he only averaged 5.2 yards per carry- but he was still unanimously selected to the 1964 All-American team. Several years later, he was named to the first team all-time All-Big 8 team.

Sayers was destined for greatness in the professional ranks as well. He was chosen with the fourth overall pick in the 1965 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears and with the fifth overall pick in the AFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. Sayers opted for the prestige of the NFL over the money of the AFL.

When he got to the NFL, he picked up right where he left off in Lawrence….only better. Much better. He ran the ball 166 times for 867 yards and 14 touchdowns in 1965. Those numbers might be a little inflated considering on December 12, he scored an NFL record six touchdowns in one game against the San Francisco 49ers. Oh, by the way, Sayers scored six more TD’s through the air (on only 29 total catches all season) and one each via punt return and kick off return. He was well rounded from the start and was a Pro-Bowler and Rookie of the Year in 1965.

Gale Sayers gained his most yardage ever in the 1966 season when he carried the ball 229 times for 1231 yards. He led the NFL in total rushing yards, rushing yards per game, total yards from scrimmage. He was again selected to the All-Pro team in 1966. He repeated that feat again in 1967 despite the fact that he fumbled the ball a league high eight times.

The 1968 season was the beginning of the end of sorts. After only nine games, Sayers sustained a knee injury that caused him to miss the remainder of the season. Still, in those nine games, Sayers still managed to lead the NFL in rushing yards per game (95.1) and yards per carry (6.2). If you extrapolate these numbers over 14 games, 1968 would’ve been Sayers’ best season in pro football. He was named an All-Pro again.

He returned in 1969 and had an incredible season, but those that watched Sayers could tell that he’d lost much of his explosiveness. Still, the Kansas Comet led the NFL in carries (236- a career high), rushing yards (1032) and rushing yards per game (73.7). Again, Sayers was named to the All-Pro team.

Sayers suffered another knee injury in 1970 and only played four total games in 1970 and 1971. He officially retired in 1972. The NFL had to wait the requisite five years for Hall of Fame induction, but in 1977, Sayers became the youngest player to ever be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was 34 years old at the time.

After his football career, Sayers came into pop culture fame when the movie Brian’s Song hit theaters. The story between Sayers and his white teammate Brian Piccolo came at a time when racial tension was tight in the United States. It showed that Sayers was not just a great football player, but a remarkable human being as well.

Sayers is involved in many humanitarian efforts in Chicago and has been a member of the Kansas athletic department since 2009.