When Matt Forte was a rookie running back in 2008, he visited the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, with all the other rookies that year. It was a part of the NFL’s rookie orientation program.
Forte’s guide that day? Legendary Bears running back Gale Sayers.
The Bears had selected Forte with a second-round draft pick in 2008. It was a fitting welcome for Forte, who went on to become one of the most successful Bears running back in recent years, and a top 100 Bears player all-time, according to the team’s 2019 ranking.
Forte posted a tribute to Sayers on Wednesday morning, not long after news spread that Sayers died at age 77.
“Amazing inspiration before starting a career,” Forte wrote of his 2008 encounter. “Thanks for setting the standard for @ChicagoBears RB’s. You’ll be missed but always remembered.”
Sayers, the legendary Bears running back, played for the team from 1965 to 1971, and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. He took the NFL by storm when he came onto the scene in 1965 and earned his Hall of Fame nod despite really only playing five full seasons before injuries derailed his career.
Remembrances came from all corners Wednesday. Players past and present posted in honor of Sayers on social media.
The Bears wrote that Sayers “amplified what it meant to be a Chicago Bear both on and off the field. He was regarded as an extraordinary teammate, leader, husband and father.”
“Coach Halas said it best, when presenting Gale for induction at the Hall of Fame: ‘His like will never be seen again,'" said Bears chairman George McCaskey, the grandson of legendary Bears founder and coach George Halas. “On behalf of the McCaskey family, we offer our sincerest condolences to Ardie and the entire Sayers family.”
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell called Sayers “one of the finest men in NFL history and one of the game’s most exciting players.”
“We will also forever remember Gale for his inspiration and kindness,” Goodell said. “Gale’s quiet unassuming demeanor belied his determination, competitiveness and compassion.”
Pro Football Hall of Fame President and CEO David Baker said the Hall of Fame flag will fly at half-staff until Sayers is laid to rest.
“All those who love the game of football mourn the loss of one of the greatest to ever play this game with the passing of Chicago Bears legend Gale Sayers,” Baker said in a statement. “He was the very essence of a team player – quiet, unassuming and always ready to compliment a teammate for a key block.”
Sayers was the youngest player ever inducted into the Hall of Fame at age 34. His jersey No. 40 was retired by the Bears at halftime of Monday Night Football game at Soldier Field in 1994.
“[I] will miss a great friend who helped me become the player I became because after practicing and scrimmaging against Gale, I knew I could play against anybody,” former teammate and Hall of Famer Dick Butkus said. “We lost one of the best Bears ever, and more importantly, we lost a great person.”
Sayers touched more than the football world, too.
Billy Dee Williams depicted Sayers in the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song,” which depicted Sayers' friendship with Bears teammate Brian Piccolo, and Piccolo’s battle against cancer. It was a breakout role for Williams, who might best be known for playing Lando Calrissian in “Star Wars.”
“My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers,” Williams wrote on Twitter. “Portraying Gale in Brian’s Song was a true honor and one of the [highlights] of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart. My sincerest condolences to his family.”
Chicago Bulls legend Scottie Pippen wrote that he admired Sayers long before he arrived in Chicago.
“I loved his approach to the game and of course, how he played it,” Pippen wrote on Twitter. “He inspired me to be great in a city that loves sports like no other."