Kansas football fans knew that they had a star in the making in sophomore running back Gale Sayers. As freshman were forbidden to play for the varsity team, the Omaha, Nebraska, native did not get a chance to prove himself against top-notch competition until opening day of the 1962 football season.
In his first game for the varsity squad, Sayers rushed for 114 yards in a loss to Texas Christian University. Two weeks later, he again rushed for more than one hundred yards, this time against the University of Colorado. Nonetheless, no one expected him to have the sort of game he would have against the Oklahoma State Cowboys at that school’s Lewis Field on the last Saturday of October 1962.
A headline in the Friday, October 26, edition of the University Daily Kansan noted that the “Limping Jayhawks Must Beat ‘Pokes,” and the game was, indeed, a critical match-up for both teams. It was especially so for Kansas, which had been riding high after winning its first-ever bowl game the preceding January.
After losing their season-opener to TCU, the Jayhawks had reeled off three consecutive victories. But the Kansas team had fallen to the University of Oklahoma in Lawrence’s Memorial Stadium the week before it was to play the Sooners’ cross-state rival. Thus KU’s record stood at 3-2 with Kansas State, Nebraska, California, and Missouri still on the schedule. A loss to OSU would jeopardize the prospects of a winning season.
Despite a rash of injuries that had led Coach Jack Mitchell to comment that KU was in “the worst physical shape [it had been] in all year long,” the odds-makers in Las Vegas favored Kansas by two touchdowns.
A disastrous first half for the Jayhawks, however, sent the team to the locker room at halftime trailing 17-7. According to the Kansan, Mitchell told his football team that there was no way he or the other coaches could make the students play with desire. “If you want it, go get it,” he said, before he and the other coaches stormed out.
“What happened in the Jayhawk dressing room [following the coaches’ exit],” noted the Kansan, “remains a mystery,” but apparently after some finger pointing and scuffling, quarterback Rodger McFarland gave a speech that fired up the players.
The Kansas team took the opening kickoff of the second half and, twelve plays later, punched the ball into the end zone. After a two-point conversion, they had cut the Cowboys’ lead to 17-15. With forty-three seconds remaining in the third quarter, KU scored again to take a 22-17 lead into the fourth quarter. The Jayhawks added two more touchdowns in the final stanza of the game to make the final score 36-17.
The story of the game, however, was not KU’s come-from-behind victory, though Mitchell ranked it as the best such victory he had ever witnessed. It was instead the “fleet-footed Omaha, Nebraska sophomore.”
Admittedly, Oklahoma State’s defense, to quote its coach, Cliff Seegle, “didn’t exactly set the world on fire with [its] tackling.” (Seegle’s team allowed KU to grind out a total of 499 rushing yards – a number that still stands as one of the five greatest games Kansas has enjoyed in terms of racking up rushing yardage.)
Nonetheless, Sayers’ outstanding game drew praise from KU and OSU fans alike. His 283 yards on the ground (on only 22 carries – an average of 12.9 yards per carry) was made more remarkable by the fact that part way through the fourth quarter, Mitchell had pulled him from the game.
Following a play in which Oklahoma State’s Don Derrick tackled Sayers well after the KU back had run out of bounds, “Sayers’ temper flared and he sent a right to Derrick’s rib cage.” A melee between the teams ensued, and although the referees did not inform Mitchell that they had officially ejected his star tailback, the Kansas coach removed Sayers from the game so as to avoid “the chance of him getting hurt.”
When his coach removed him, the sophomore running back had already accumulated 268 rushing yards, including one play in which he had broken loose for a 96-yard touchdown. Upon hearing that radio commentators were noting how close their star sophomore was to the Big Eight single-game rushing record of 270 yards that had been set by Iowa State’s Dave Hoppman the previous year, some of Sayers’ teammates pleaded with their coach to put Sayers’ back in. Mitchell capitulated to their request.
On his first play back in the game, Sayers took a handoff and squirted through a hole for 15 yards. Afterwards, however, the officials called a dead-ball penalty on Kansas for using Sayers whom the officials claimed they had ejected. Mitchell objected because he had not received any notification of his tailback’s official removal from the game, but the penalty stood.
Nonetheless, because yardage gained during plays in which a dead-ball penalty was called was credited to the offense, it had to be credited to a player as well. Thus the 15 yards counted towards Sayers’ total, and he left the game having eclipsed the previous rushing record by 13 yards.
The game served as a harbinger of greater things to come for the tailback from Omaha, soon nicknamed the “Kansas Comet.” He led the team in rushing, touchdowns, and kickoff returns in 1962, as he became only the second back from KU to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season.
His junior and senior seasons he again led the team in the categories he had as a sophomore but added to them punt returns and receiving. Not surprisingly, in both years he earned a selection as an All-American. As a junior he set a NCAA record for the longest rush from the line of scrimmage by scampering 99 yards for a touchdown against Nebraska. He closed out his collegiate career having averaged 6.5 yards per carry and having amassed 3,917 all-purpose yards.
The Chicago Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs selected Sayers in the first round of the NFL and AFL drafts respectively. While at his first training camp as a Bear, he met Brian Piccolo, a less-heralded white running back from Wake Forest, who became one of his closest friends. The Bears assigned the two to room together on road trips, making them the first racially mixed roommates in the history of the franchise.
After cancer brought Piccolo’s life to an untimely end, Sayers wrote a book documenting their friendship titled I Am Third that became the basis for the TV-movie Brian’s Song. The film, which starred Billy Dee Williams and James Caan, won the 1972 Golden Globe Award as the Best Film Made for Television.
It also spawned a rash of disease-of-the-week TV-movies, as well as a cult following that has persisted for almost three decades. (The recently released DVD version of the film includes an interview with Sayers in which he reminisces about the film and his career.) Disney and ABC-TV released a new version starring Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher in 2001.
At the risk of understatement, Sayers put together an outstanding, albeit short, career in the NFL. In 1966, his second year in the National Football League, he led it in rushing and set an NFL record by amassing 2,440 total yards (i.e.; including kick returns and receiving yards).
Three years later, after two injury plagued seasons, he led the league in rushing again. So dominant was he that when the Associated Press announced an all-time NFL team in 1969, it listed the former Jayhawk as the greatest running back in the league’s history.
During his seventh season in Chicago, Sayers suffered a career-ending knee injury. He retired from the sport in 1972, and for the next four years served as assistant athletic director at KU.
While back on Mount Oread, Sayers completed a BA in physical education, and earned an MA in educational administration. In 1977, at age 34, Sayers became the youngest person (and the first Jayhawk) ever inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas