Gale Sayers, the legendary Chicago Bears running back who became the youngest player ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame after injury cut short his career, has died at the age of 77 after years of declining health, the Hall of Fame said Wednesday.
"All those who love the game of football mourn the loss of one of the greatest to ever play this game with the passing of Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers," Hall of Fame president David Baker said in a statement.
"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."
The dynamic ball carrier dubbed the "Kansas Comet" earned All-Pro recognition in each of his first five full seasons in the NFL.
Knee injuries ended his dazzling career in 1971 after just seven seasons.
"If you wish to see perfection as a running back, you had best get a hold of a film of Gale Sayers," Bears founder George Halas said in 1977 when he presented Sayers for Hall of Fame enshrinement. "He was poetry in motion. His like will never be seen again."
Sayers rushed for 4,956 yards and scored 56 touchdowns in his 68-game career.
He set the Bears' single-season touchdown record with 22 as a rookie in 1965, recording 14 rushing TDs, six receiving, one kickoff return and one punt return.
That stunning rookie campaign was highlighted by a historic performance against the San Francisco 49ers at Wrigley Field on December 12, 1965 -- when Sayers scored six touchdowns -- equalling the league's single-game record.
- 'Like he was gliding' -
He carried the ball nine times from scrimmage, scoring on four of those carries.
"He looked like he was gliding," teammate Mike Ditka recalled at the Bears100 Celebration last year.
"Everybody was slipping and sliding except him. It was the most unbelievable exhibition I've ever seen in the history of the game."
Gale Eugene Sayers was born May 30, 1943, in Wichita, Kansas. He was raised in Omaha, Nebraska, and excelled in football and track and field in high school.
The Bears made him the fourth overall selection in the 1965 NFL draft.
Sayers won the NFL rushing title in 1966 with 1,231 yards in the 14-game season.
Nine games into his fourth season, in 1968, Sayers suffered his first serious knee injury when 49ers cornerback Kermit Alexander hit Sayers' right leg with his helmet.
Sayers underwent surgery immediately to repair damage to multiple knee ligaments. He returned to win the NFL rushing title in 1969, although his ability to cut and spin was noticeably curtailed.
His attempt to come back from a left knee injury suffered in 1970 proved fruitless.
"Gale was one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game's most exciting players," NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
"Gale was an electrifying and elusive runner who thrilled fans every time he touched the ball. He earned his place as a first-ballot Hall of Famer."
Sayers was diagnosed with dementia in 2013. He sued the NFL claiming the league had negligently dealt with his repeated head injuries.
"It's a shame his condition now," former teammate Dick Butkus said at the time. "It's a terrible thing he's going through. He's a great guy and a hell of a runner."