It’s funny to think about, considering the fondly remembered movie that was spawned by their friendship, but Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo weren’t exactly close during their early years as Chicago Bears teammates in the 1960s.
“My first two years, he wasn’t fun to be around,” Sayers, the NFL Hall of Famer who died Wednesday at age 77, said in 2001. “He would tick you off because he always had a joke. It wasn’t my nature to be that way, so I guess I didn’t like it at first.”
“One guy I wasn’t impressed with – personality-wise – was the Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers,” Piccolo is quoted as saying in “Brian Piccolo: A Short Season,” a biography by Jeannie Morris. “What an arrogant son of a b—-. I didn’t see him speak to a soul the whole week we were together.”
Truth be told, Sayers and Piccolo were close during their time together on the Bears – they were the first interracial roommates in NFL history – but not best friends. Piccolo was closer with Ralph Kurek, another running back. Piccolo’s wife, Joy Piccolo O’Connell, said her husband’s friendship with Sayers was “a small part of Brian’s life.”
But an early-1970s made-for-TV film about a friendship between two White football players would be a tough sell in Hollywood, and Sayers spent a chapter on his admiration for Piccolo in his 1970 autobiography, “I Am Third.” It was enough for the filmmakers of “Brian’s Song” to center their movie – nearly verbatim – on the emotional 1970 speech Sayers delivered after receiving the George S. Halas Courage Award, which was given less than one month before Piccolo’s death.
“He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent – cancer,” Sayers said in the speech. “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.”
Morris, Piccolo’s biographer, called the film “essentially true,” even though the filmmakers “exaggerated” the friendship between Sayers and Piccolo.
“They didn’t abuse the story,” she said. “I think Brian was a lot more important to Gale than Gale was to Brian.”
Despite the liberties taken – or, if we’re being honest, because of them – “Brian’s Song” was a sensation when ABC first aired it on Nov. 30, 1971, becoming the most-watched made-for-TV film ever at the time, winning an Emmy for best dramatic film and even enjoying a brief theatrical release.
It was the best-ever “manly sports-movie weeper,” Tim Grierson and Will Leitch wrote about the movie in Vulture earlier this year.
“This movie leaves us crying like a bunch of blubbering fools every time we watch it,” ESPN wrote in placing “Brian’s Song” at No. 18 on its list of all-time sports movies.