Football Drama Showcases Epic Friendship Between Players

An advertisement for an upcoming television movie read something to this effect (a paraphrase is needed here): In June 1970, the Chicago Bears suffered their worst loss in team history.

This wasn’t a defeat on the gridiron. Rather, it was the tragic loss of a human being.

Brian’s Song first aired as the “ABC Movie of the Week” on Nov. 31, 1971. It tells the story of the friendship between Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, both of whom joined the Bears as running backs in 1965. James Caan portrays Piccolo, and Billy Dee Williams plays Sayers.

The film chronicles the challenges confronting Sayers and Piccolo as teammates in Chicago. They were the first black and white players in NFL history to room together on road trips.

They competed against each other for playing time, with Sayers winning most of these contests. Nicknamed the Kansas Comet, Sayers was one of the best pure runners to ever play football. He had his spot on the team etched in stone.

Piccolo was a standout offensive player when he attended Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.; he led the nation in rushing and scoring during his senior year in 1964. But when he tried out for the NFL, he found his efforts made him mediocre at best. The skill on the professional level was so much better than he’d ever seen.

Piccolo wasn’t drafted in 1965 by either the NFL or AFL (the two leagues wouldn’t merge until a year later), so he was a walk-on for the Bears. The team kept him on for the practice squad his first year and limited his playing time during the regular NFL seasons for the next few years.

Sayers injured his knee in November 1968, leaving an opening for Piccolo to contribute to the team much more often. In 1969, the Bears made Piccolo a starting fullback. This put both men in the backfield at the same time.

June 16 marked the 50th anniversary of Piccolo’s death. At the age of 26, he left behind his wife and three young daughters.

Brian’s Song does an excellent job documenting the trials faced by Piccolo and Sayers as football players, friends and family men. Racial turbulence marked the period of the mid- to late 1960s, and many people strongly objected to their rooming together.

The Bears took a risk in offering this arrangement, but in hindsight their gamble proved wise. It was yet another milestone toward enhancing race relations in professional athletics.

But what distinguishes Brian’s Song as one of the finest sports movies ever made is the way it showcases Piccolo’s battle against cancer in 1969 and 1970, one he ultimately lost. Piccolo and Sayers had bonded so closely that the threat of death seemed equally devastating for both families.

June 16 marked the 50th anniversary of Piccolo’s death. At the age of 26, he left behind his wife and three young daughters.

Brian’s Song manages to unpack a lot in a short time (the film is only 74 minutes long). It balances the football aspect of these two men’s lives with the racial tensions taking place during this period.

There are moments when Piccolo uses racial slurs and makes stereotypical comments as a way to joke with Sayers, and hearing this now makes one cringe. The film shows Sayers taking all this in stride, and perhaps he did when it occurred in the late 1960s.

One scene shows both men giggling uncontrollably after Piccolo utters the n-word. Would this casual approach to derogatory rhetoric find acceptance with modern audiences?

While painful to endure, this dialogue has value as a window into how attitudes have changed over the past five decades. We learn a great deal about how people viewed race relations in the 1960s and 1970s by watching movies made from these eras.

It’s difficult imagining better casting for Brian’s Song. Both Caan and Williams were relative newcomers to the film industry in 1971.

But they captured the spirit of their respective characters as well as the nature of their relationship. And Brian’s Song boosted the careers of these two actors.

Williams starred opposite Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues (1972), a biopic of jazz singer Billie Holiday. Then he became a pop cultural icon as Lando Calrissian in the Star Wars franchise. Caan followed up his work in Brian’s Song with the role that made him a Hollywood legend: Sonny Corleone in The Godfather (1972).

The movie also stars Shelley Fabares as Piccolo’s wife, Joy; Judy Pace as Sayers’s wife, Linda; and Jack Warden as Bears coach George Halas. Some of the Bears team members make cameo appearances in the film as well.

Brian’s Song received excellent reviews and was one of ABC’s most-watched movies. Broadcast less than a year and a half after Piccolo’s death, it’s astounding that something so remarkable was produced in such a short period of time.

Brian Piccolo

But creating a film with such power could well have been easy given the source material it used. Brian’s Song was based on “I Am Third,” the wonderful autobiography that Sayers published in 1970 with Al Silverman.

On May 25, 1970, Sayers received the George S. Halas Courage Award for his comeback in the 1969 season. While appreciative for this honor, he reminded all those gathered what real bravery looks like.

He said that Piccolo “has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent — cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight; it is Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. … I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him too. Tonight when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”

Brian’s Song can be found on Amazon Prime Video.