Hannah Michelle Bussa
Gale Sayers, former NFL player for the Chicago Bears and Omaha Central High School alumnus, died on Sept. 23, 2020 at the age of 77.
Sayers was raised in Omaha, Nebraska. At Omaha Central, he was a football and track star, setting a long-standing record in long jump and playing in the Shrine Bowl of Nebraska.
Local artist Gerard Pefung was recently contacted to work on a mural in Papillion to represent Nebraska. Gale Sayers is included in this mural.
“His personality and electrifying performance on and off the field left an impression on me. I knew he was the one I wanted to represent on the mural,” Pefung said.
After graduating from Omaha Central, Sayers played for the University of Kansas. During a game against the Huskers in Lincoln, he was the first player to record a 99-yard run in NCAA Division 1-A history. While at the University of Kansas, he was nicknamed the “Kansas Comet.”
At the University of Kansas, Sayers was also one of over 100 students arrested during a sit-in for civil rights in March of 1965.
“This is not one millionth of one percent of what Martin Luther King is doing in Alabama. There is a definite problem on discrimination against Negroes here. I’m an athlete and so I have good housing, but my fraternity brothers and other Negroes do not have good housing,” said Sayers.
Regarding this activism, Pefung said, “In our communities, we need more people who are doers, taking the stand against injustice [like Gale did].”
Sayers continued to face the injustices of the time. In 1967, the Bears chose hotel room assignments based on position, making Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, a Black man and a white man, roommates. This was unusual, but it started a friendship that became well-known, largely due to the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.” Sayers also became the co-chair of the first group in sports to deal with civil rights in support of the NAACP in 1967.
Though Sayers’ time in the NFL was cut short due to knee injuries, he had a successful career, setting records and being awarded Rookie of the Year. In 1977, at 34-years-old, Sayers was the youngest man inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
For his courage, Sayers was also awarded the George S. Halas award. During his acceptance speech, Sayers spoke about his friend Brian Piccolo, who by that time had been diagnosed with cancer. Piccolo died less than a month later. Sayers was diagnosed with dementia in 2013 and passed away in his home last month.
His legacy lives on.
“Gale is rated as one of the top NFL players to ever hit the field. He makes me proud telling others where I am from. He is a great example for many, from fulfilling his American dream pursuing his passion on the field, and in being an all-around solid person off the field,” said Pefung.
Sayers continues to inspire younger generations as well. Brian Neely, a 2018 alumnus of Omaha Central High School, said, “Knowing that someone like Gale came from my high school, went on to play at the professional level, and used his platform to stand against social injustice really inspires me to stand up for social injustice in any position I’m in in life.”