“Brian’s Song” has always maintained a unique position among the movies that feed our sports-loving hearts, a tearjerker to break even the strongest of men (and plenty of women). A story about football, yes, but one about so much more.
And the public acknowledgment of how deep the love for a friend can be, even when that friend has been one of your fiercest rivals on the field, no matter that that friend is of a different race than you, and most especially when that friend is in a hospital bed fighting for his life. That’s what the world saw when a 1971 made-for-TV movie told of the true-life friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo. It’s what the world remembered in a most poignant way with the sad news that Sayers had passed away at age 77.
“He was a blessing to the planet Earth,” said actor James Caan, who portrayed Piccolo in the movie.
It’s what the world could use a little more of today, when it too often feels as if everything we have in common is forgotten in the face of our differences.
Both Caan and Billy Dee Williams, who played Sayers, tweeted out their condolences Wednesday, when Sayers’s death following a battle with dementia was announced by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Theirs were but two of the many, many tributes to one of the NFL’s all-time great players, his career cut short by injury but immortalized as the youngest player ever enshrined in Canton. But more than anything he did on the field, Sayers was recalled as a man of humility and grace, as one of profound dignity and heart, as the one who could summon the courage to say what he did on a May night 50 years ago.
My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers.— Billy Dee Williams (@realbdw) September 23, 2020
Portraying Gale in Brian’s Song was a true honor and one of the nightlights of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart.
My sincerest condolences to his family 💔#RIPGaleSayers pic.twitter.com/OyQRlwuznU
The events of May 25, 1970, began with about 600 people seated inside a ballroom at New York’s old Americana hotel. There’s no telling how many actually remained by the time the final presentation of the annual Pro Football Writers awards dinner was given, but for those who did, the reward was a lifelong memory. Sayers, accepting a trophy as the unanimous George S. Halas Most Courageous Player of 1969, didn’t talk about the league-best 1,032 yards he’d gained just one year after a knee injury most believed would end his career.
He talked instead about his friend Brian, “struck down by the deadliest, most shocking enemy any of us can ever face — cancer.” He detailed Piccolo’s courage in the face of brutal treatment, of hospital stays and surgeries, of always believing a better day was around the corner. He told the audience that although he was flattered by the award, the trophy was destined for someone else’s hands.
“It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow,” Sayers said.
And then, the words that were destined to outlive them both.
“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
Upton Bell, the former NFL executive and onetime Patriots general manager, was in the room when it happened. They’d all been hushed into silence, but slowly, attendees roared to life. Table after table stood in applause, grown men wiping their cheeks and dabbing their eyes.
“It wasn’t a long speech, it was this kind of emotional one, that I think everyone kind of felt, and that includes myself, that we didn’t really know what to do here,” Bell said.
“Gale was shy and self-effacing, but here he was almost begging emotionally about this person, who we found out that night was dying in the hospital. We didn’t know. It was a moment in history that should be celebrated.”
“Brian’s Song” made sure it would be. Filmed only months later, not long after Piccolo, who was born in Pittsfield, succumbed to the cancer, it celebrated the love Sayers spoke of, one that broke racial and emotional barriers with equal force, and with equal impact. It showed us how these two men — Sayers Black, Piccolo white — became the first interracial road roommates in the NFL. It showed us that the testosterone-driven world of pro football could make room for true emotion, not as weakness, but as strength. It showed us it was OK to cry.
“Everybody’s cries when they see it. I cry every time I see it,” said Caan, who, at 80, was gracious enough to summon memories of the project in a telephone call with the Globe, a project he could never have predicted would resonate so long, but one he is asked about almost as much as his iconic role as Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather.” “I grew up with really strong relationships, and my friends were my real friends, and still are. Friends were the only thing we had, and their relationship was pretty genuine, and pretty great.”
The movie almost didn’t happen, at least not for Caan, who acknowledged he turned the role down four times (as any self-respecting intended movie star would do for a TV role). Not even for Williams, whom Caan said was a last-minute recast for Louis Gossett Jr., who tore his Achilles' just before shooting was set to begin. But convinced his former athletic days at Michigan State might actually impress Bears coaches, Caan headed up to the campus of St. Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, Ind., and put on his pads. The football fantasy lasted about as long as it took for the first real tackle of training camp to take him down, but the acting gig would prove to be off to a roaring start.
It was an immediate sensation, winner of the 1971 Emmy for best dramatic program, the most-watched television movie of the year. The writer, William Blinn, also won an Emmy for his adaptation of the story from Sayers’s autobiography, “I Am Third.” The reception was so unprecedented that the movie was actually released in cinemas nationwide, though the TV cut, made for commercials, didn’t quite work on the big screen. It was perfect as is, with an original title track that can still turn this sportswriter of a certain age into the eighth-grader trying so hard not to cry at her desk when a teacher elected to show it to the class.
“They played it in study periods for kids after school — I wish they’d show it more now,” Caan said. “It was that long before a Black and white guy roomed together. I grew up in a neighborhood that was Irish, Jewish, Italian, Black, I didn’t know anything about that nonsense. It was a sad, sad story, and I loved the idea that it was all approached with a humorous background. Today, I wish people would see it more.”
Amen. Here’s to watching a story of love, of harmony, to respecting this beautiful eulogy to Piccolo that is just as fitting an epitaph for Sayers, to a friendship one can only hope has been rekindled somewhere in the great beyond.