Rookie Season (1965)
Sayers was drafted by the Chicago Bears in the first round of the 1965 NFL Draft, and the Kansas City Chiefs of the American Football League, but signed with Chicago. In his rookie year, he scored an NFL record 22 touchdowns (14 rushing, 6 receiving, and one each on punt and kickoff returns). He gained 1,374 yards from scrimmage and had 2,272 all-purpose yards (also a record, later broken by Tim Brown, who played two more games than Sayers). He tied Ernie Nevers’ and Dub Jones’ record for touchdowns in a single game, with six in a 61-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers on December 12, 1965. Sayers averaged 5.2 yards per rush and 17.5 yards per reception. His return averages were 14.9 yards per punt return and 31.4 yards per kickoff return. He was the unanimous choice for NFL Rookie of the Year honors. Despite his play, the Bears finished in third place in the NFL Western Conference (behind the Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Colts)
Second NFL Season (1966)
In his second season, despite being the focus of opposing defenses, Sayers led the league in rushing with 1,231 yards, averaging 5.4 yards per carry with eight touchdowns. He led the Bears in receiving with 34 catches, 447 yards, and two more scores; he also surpassed his rookie season’s kick return numbers, averaging 31.2 yards per return with two touchdowns. He set another NFL record with 2,440 all-purpose yards despite the Bears’ fifth-place finish, with a 5-7-2 record. Sayers also won the first of three Pro Bowl Most Valuable Player awards.
Third NFL Season (1967)
In George Halas’ last season as an NFL coach, Sayers again starred. Sharing more of the rushing duties with other backs, such as Brian Piccolo, Sayers gained 880 yards with a 4.7 average per carry.
First and Second Injuries
After the first nine games of 1968, Sayers was again leading the NFL in rushing (he finished with 856 yards and a 6.2 average per carry). However, his season ended prematurely in a game against the San Francisco 49ers when Sayers tore many ligaments in his right knee. After surgery, Sayers went through a physical rehabilitation program with the help of teammate Brian Piccolo.
In the 1969 season Sayers led the league in rushing once again with 1,032 yards, but he lacked the speed he once had, and averaged only 4.4 yards per carry. The Bears, long past the Halas glory years, finished in last place with a franchise worst 1–13 record.
In 1970, Sayers suffered a second knee injury, this time to his left knee. Piccolo also died of cancer that year. During his off time, Sayers took classes to become a stockbroker and became the first black stockbroker in his company’s history. After another rehabilitation period, he tried a comeback in 1971, which was not successful. He was encouraged to retire, but decided to give it one more try. Sayers’ final game was in the 1972 preseason; he retired a few days later.
In 1977, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is still the youngest inductee in the Hall’s history. In 1994, the Bears retired his number, 40, at Soldier Field, along with number 51, which had been worn by teammate, linebacker Dick Butkus.