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Gale Sayers, Who Inspired TV Movie 'Brian's Song,' Dies At 77

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

For all of its brutality, football offers moments of breathtaking beauty in motion, like when a quarterback completes the long arc of a pass or when you watch old video of running back Gale Sayers. The Chicago Bears star did not smash through defenders. He moved, maneuvering out of seemingly impossible spots.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: You can see him breaking away from that tackle. And watch the moves here - the quick move of Gale Sayers. He's off - 85 yards for a touchdown, looking over his shoulder.

INSKEEP: Many people saw a fictionalized version of Gale Sayers in the movie "Brian's Song." But the real-life player was art in motion. Gale Sayers has died due to complications from dementia and Alzheimer's disease at the age of 77.

And we're going to talk about his life with sports journalist Kevin Blackistone, also a professor at the University of Maryland. Welcome back.

KEVIN BLACKISTONE: Thank you.

INSKEEP: How, if at all, did Gale Sayers change the game in the 1960s and '70s?

BLACKISTONE: Well, he was a combination of speed and guile that the NFL had never seen. You know, previously, running backs were basically bruisers. They were strong. They ran over whatever was in front of them and then into the end zone. And then came this speedster from Kansas - The Comet - who not only could outrun everybody on the field but would also make people look silly. He'd stick his leg out. You'd go to grab it; he'd move it. He'd be gone. He was a beautiful thing to watch.

INSKEEP: But there's an irony that I want to talk about. He's so quick; he's not a bruiser; he's avoiding the tackles. And yet, one does get tackled in football. He had a brutal career. It seemed like the Chicago Bears ran him into the ground, overused him. And he only lasted a few seasons before injuries ended his career.

BLACKISTONE: Yeah, it was a very short career. It really only lasted five seasons. He had a horrible knee knee injury against the San Francisco 49ers. Miraculously, he came back and still was pretty good. And then the next year, he injured his other knee and then an ankle. And so for the last two years that he was in the NFL, he only played four football games.

INSKEEP: Did he suffer from head injuries - head trauma of the kind we focus on now but people didn't pay attention to then, it seems?

BLACKISTONE: Yeah. His widow said that she started to notice a change in Gale back in about 2009 or 2010, that he just - he wasn't himself. And she believes that certainly by 2013, that he had really began to suffer the ravages of CTE, which eventually took his life. And so he joins a long, long list now of stars in this league who have suffered from this - and of course, those who have suffered from it who have taken their own lives, like most infamously maybe, Junior Seau, the linebacker for the Chargers. So it is a sad demise.

But you know, Steve, when his story appeared in that 1971 made-for-TV movie "Brian's Song" about his teammate Brian Piccolo who was his white teammate, white roommate - the first interracial roommates in the NFL - who was dying of terminal cancer - and that brought tears to me as a kid. And so to me, Gale Sayers was the first football player who really humanized football players. You had catharsis for his injury. You saw his tears in this movie. And here at the end, he dies from CTE. And that's what really strikes me about his arc.

INSKEEP: Kevin Blackistone on Gale Sayers. Mr. Blackistone, always a pleasure. Thank you.

BLACKISTONE: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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