Despite playing just 68 NFL games over the course of seven seasons, Gale Sayers is widely considered to be one of the greatest running backs in history. His career cut far too short by injury, the Chicago Bears legend was the youngest player ever inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at age 34 after racking up 4,956 rushing yards, 1,307 receiving yards, 3,172 kick/punt return yards, and 56 total touchdowns in those 68 games. The four-time Pro Bowler and five-time First-Team All-Pro also threw one touchdown pass in his career.
Following two consecutive All-American seasons at the University of Kansas, Gale Sayers was taken with the fourth overall pick in the 1965 NFL draft by the Chicago Bears. On that very same day, he was also selected with the fifth pick in the AFL draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, the same draft in which the New York Jets selected Joe Namath at No. 1. Sayers opted to sign with the Bears and won 1965 NFL Rookie of the Year with 2,272 all-purpose yards, 1,374 yards from scrimmage, and 22 touchdowns, an NFL record at the time.
Sayers led the league in rushing the following season with 1,231 yards and won the rushing title a second time in 1969, which would turn out to be his last full season. He played in just two games in both 1970 and 1971 and retired just ahead of the 1972 season due to numerous knee injuries. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997 and had his No. 40 jersey retired by the Chicago Bears in 1994 on the same night as the man taken just before him in the 1965 NFL draft, had his No. 51 retired.
So we know that Dick Butkus was taken just before Sayers at No. 3 in that famed draft. But what about the other two men taken ahead of the “Kansas Comet?” How do they stack up to Butkus in a ranking of the three men selected ahead of Gale Sayers in the 1965 NFL draft?
3. Tucker Frederickson, FB, New York Giants (selected No. 1)
Coming in at No. 3 on this list is the No. 1 pick from the 1965 NFL draft, Tucker Frederickson. An All-American running back/fullback at Auburn, Frederickson was a two-time winner of the Jacobs Award and was named SEC MVP in 1964, the same year in which he finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy vote.
Frederickson was taken with the top pick by the New York Giants and was selected to the Pro Bowl as a rookie. However, a knee injury forced him to miss the entire 1966 season and he was never the same player. He played five more seasons with the Giants before calling it quits following the 1971 season. In 66 NFL games, he recorded 2,209 rushing yards, 1,011 receiving yards, and 17 touchdowns.
2. Ken Willard, FB, San Francisco 49ers (selected No. 2)
With the second pick in the 1965 NFL draft, the San Francisco 49ers selected fullback Ken Willard from the University of North Carolina. Willard actually turned down a contract with the Boston Red Sox to go to Chapel Hill, where he played baseball as well as football and is still credited with the longest home run in Tar Heels history at 525 feet. Willard went on to have a solid NFL career.
In nine seasons with the 49ers, he was selected to the Pro Bowl on four occasions and racked up 5,930 rushing yards with 45 touchdowns, also adding 2,156 receiving yards and 16 additional scores. He played the 1974 season for the St. Louis Cardinals before retiring. At the time of his retirement, his 6,105 rushing yards were the eighth-most in NFL history. Willard currently sits in 86th place on the all-time list.
1. Dick Butkus, LB, Chicago Bears (selected No. 3)
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Gale Sayers’ former teammate and fellow Hall of Famer Dick Butkus tops this list. With a pick acquired from the Pittsburgh Steelers, the Chicago Bears drafted the two-time All-American linebacker from the University of Illinois with the No. 3 selection just before drafting Gale Sayers at No. 4.
Butkus played all nine of his NFL seasons in the Windy City and was one of the most dominant linebackers in history. He was selected to the Pro Bowl in each of his first eight seasons and was also an eight-time All-Pro (6 First Team, 2 Second Team). Butkus won NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 1969 and 1970 and, like Sayers, was selected to both the NFL’s 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams. Also like Sayers, his career was cut short due to injury and he retired following the 1973 season at the age of 31. Dick Butkus was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
At the Chicago Bears’ 100th anniversary celebration last summer, Butkus said he owed a lot of his career to Gale Sayers (h/t ESPN).
“He was amazing. I still attribute a lot of my success from trying to tackle him (in practice).
“I never came up against a running back like him in my whole career, as far as a halfback. And that was counting O.J. (Simpson) and a couple of other guys. No one could touch this guy.”Dick Butkus on Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers passed away on Wednesday at the age of 77 following a battle with dementia.
All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference