To say that I cannot watch Brian’s Song without a full box of Kleenex probably comes as no surprise to anyone who knows me. I am a girl. Grocery store commercials make me cry. Combine friendship, football, and death all in one movie—well, you have all the makings of a film that brings me to my knees.
Now ask most any man you know—especially a sports fan—if he has seen Brian’s Song. If he has, you can bet he remembers it well and recalls being unable to choke back tears. In my life, I do not know if I have ever met a breathing human being—man or woman—who has not found themselves sobbing, or at least moved to tears, while watching this film.
Brian’s Song is a true story, based on the friendship of running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, who were teammates on the Chicago Bears in the 1960s. They were best friends, roommates, and—by the way—competitors for the starting running back position.
The film was a made-for-TV movie that aired in 1971 and has become a classic in its nearly 40-year existence. James Caan portrays Piccolo, who discovers he is dying from cancer after being diagnosed with a tumor in his chest. Sayers is portrayed by Billy Dee Williams, who delivers a classic heart-wrenching speech as his character receives the George S. Halas Award for Courage after returning from a potentially career-threatening knee injury. A clip of the speech can be viewed below, via the YouTube link.
While race relations were tenuous, to say the least, in the late 1960s, Sayers and Piccolo developed and maintained a friendship that endured competition for a starting position, racism, injury, and cancer.
Piccolo died at age 26 on June 16, 1970. Both the ACC (home to Piccolo’s college alma mater Wake Forest) and the Chicago Bears award annual Brian Piccolo Awards for courage.
His career eventually ended by the knee injury, Gayle Sayers later became the youngest player ever inducted into NFL Hall of Fame. His autobiography “I Am Third,” was published in 1973.
A remake of Brian’s Song was aired on ABC in 2001, starring Sean Maher and Mekhi Phifer.