The other day I came across an old movie called “Brian’s Song” that I had not seen in a great while. Rarely, was a made for TV movie from that era (1971) met with such accolades, attributable to its compelling story. Spoiler alert – It was also the first movie where men who watched were allowed to cry. The story is about the friendship between two football players, Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, who both joined the Chicago Bears professional football at the same time. In the movie, James Caan plays Piccolo, while Billy Dee Williams plays Sayers.
They both were star college running backs and competed for the same position on the team. Sayers would go onto be one of the most gifted players in the NFL, whose career would be cut short by injuries. Piccolo knew he had his work cut out for him, but he also saw a key part of his work to push Sayers to make him better. These rivals, from different races and backgrounds, would room together and become the kind of friends we all would hope to have. They worked and played together. They teased each other and played practical jokes on each other.
Piccolo would tell Sayers the coach had a deaf ear on one side, so it was important to be on his good ear side, which was all untrue. When Sayers kept hopping around to stay on the good side, the coach said “Sayers, what are you doing?” Sayers would return the favor by slipping mashed potatoes into Piccolo’s chair while he was required to sing his college fight song. The humor is as much a part of the relationship as the competition and kinship.They both made the team and the coach changed Piccolo’s position, so both could start together in the backfield.
The reason for the story goes beyond the friendship, though, as Piccolo started losing weight and kept running out of steam. It turned out he had cancer. He would go on to battle it courageously, but would eventually lose the fight. Sayers, would be by his side and spoke on his behalf at the behest of Piccolo’s wife. The story received additional notoriety when Sayers was given an award for coming back “courageously” from an injury. During his acceptance speech, Sayers said the award belongs to Brian Piccolo, who showed him what courage was all about. He would go onto say, “I love Brian Piccolo.”
Even knowing the ending does not detract from the powerful story. It is not unlike the movie “La Bamba” where you know Ritchie Valens will go down in the plane. The movie is still excellent. It is also leveraged tremendously by a very poignant piano theme song, that gives me chills every time I hear it.
If you have never seen the movie, please check it out. If you have, I would love to hear your thoughts and reflections. Below is a link to various clips.