Gale Sayers' greatness was defined by the 'greatest single game in the history of the game'

Frank Schwab
·3-min read

The NFL is in its 101st season, with more than 10,000 games played and thousands of players in its storied history.

If you asked which was the greatest single performance in all those games, among all the great players in NFL history, the answer would probably be Gale Sayers on a muddy Wrigley Field in 1965.

Sayers died at 77 years old. He was a titan in NFL lore, an unbelievable talent at running back for the Chicago Bears whose career was cut short due to injuries.

Sayers was never better than on Dec. 12, 1965 against the San Francisco 49ers. It’s possible nobody in professional football history was better than him that day.

Gale Sayers smiles happily after scoring six touchdowns against San Francisco 49ers as the Bears won, 61-20, in Chicago on Dec. 12, 1965. (AP Photo/Paul Cannon)
Gale Sayers smiles happily after scoring six touchdowns against San Francisco 49ers as the Bears won, 61-20, in Chicago on Dec. 12, 1965. (AP Photo/Paul Cannon)

‘The greatest single game’

Sayers had a historic rookie season that peaked against the 49ers, when he scored six times. Ernie Nevers scored six touchdowns in a game for the 1929 Chicago Cardinals, and Dub Jones scored six touchdowns for the Browns in 1951. Sayers tied that record. No player since has scored six times in an NFL game.

The greatness of Sayers was in full display. His ability to cut on a dime was unmatched, as was his ability to accelerate in the open field, and he made the 49ers defense look silly on the wet turf. He scored on a pretty run in the first quarter after a short catch, going 80 yards. He scored on runs of 21, 7, 50 and 1 yards. Then his sixth, historic touchdown came on another magnificent open-field run on an 85-yard punt return. He seemed to glide on a football field.

“I can still see the 49ers sloshing around in the mud,” Sayers told the Los Angeles Times in 1985. “It seemed like everyone was slipping but me.”

Sayers had 113 rushing yards and four touchdowns on only nine carries, 89 receiving yards and a touchdown on two catches and 134 yards and a score on five punt returns.

“It was really incredible, something to behold,” Mike Ditka, back then a tight end, told the Bears’ website in 2015. “Probably the greatest single game, I think, in the history of the game.”

Gale Sayers had a rookie season for the ages

It’s fairly amazing that among all the greats who have come and gone in the past 55 years, none have scored six times in an NFL game. The fact that Sayers did it as a rookie makes it even more special.

Sayers was an instant superstar with the Bears in 1965. He rushed for 14 touchdowns, had six receiving touchdowns and returned two other kicks for touchdowns in a 14-game season.

Sayers’ NFL career didn’t last long, but that was part of his legend. Sayers played only 68 NFL games. But the tales of Sayers’ electric running ability for the Bears lived on long after his career was done.

“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.”

Tales of Sayers’ ability will live on long after his death. And they’ll always go back to one day his rookie season against the 49ers. More than a half-century later, nobody has been able to top it.

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