Brian’s Song – The Friendship of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers
UPDATE: Nov 30, 2016 marks the 45th anniversary of “one of the best football movies ever”, according to The Undefeated. Click here to read more about the origins of the movie.
UPDATE 2: On March 13, 2014, it was announced that Nicholas Sparks and Theresa Park acquired the rights to Sayer’s I Am Third and Sayers: My Life and Times to begin work on a feature film that focuses on the relationship between Sayers and Piccolo. It’s not certain if this will be a remake of Brian’s Song or if a new script will be written.
The movie starts during training camp 1965, as rookie running back Gale Sayers reports to camp for the Chicago Bears. After a punt lands at his feet as he gets out of the taxi cab, Sayers meets fellow rookie back Brian Piccolo. Sayers asks him where head coach George Halas’ office is, and Piccolo tells him. As a prank, Piccolo also tells him that Halas has issues hearing out of his right ear. At first, Sayers acts strangely in his meeting with Halas before realizing it’s a prank, to which he doesn’t take kindly. At lunch, Piccolo is being forced to sing his Wake Forest fight song and Sayers, while Piccolo is standing up singing, puts mashed potatoes on Piccolo’s seat as revenge. The pair is a contrast during camp, as Sayers shines while Piccolo struggles. Sayers is then called into a meeting with Halas and an assistant coach and defensive captain, to which he’s told that they will be rooming Piccolo and Sayers together, a rare occurrence at the time for a black and white player to room together.
Early in the season Sayers, a quiet player who doesn’t speak much to when asked, has success, rushing for 1,374 yards and 22 total touchdowns. During this time Piccolo takes a backseat to Sayers, not playing much but always staying ready. The two develop a friendship, as they go out together with their wives and share laughs. In their fourth season, Sayers he tears the ligaments in his right knee in a game against the San Francisco 49ers. Frustrated, Sayers arrives at home on crutches with his wife and he is very short with her. After she departs, Sayers goes to the basement where he hears Piccolo singing. His teammate had bought him a leg lift weight machine and is determined to help Sayers recover 100 percent.
Given the opportunity to start, Piccolo has a huge game against the Los Angeles Rams, going for 160 yards in a 17-16 win. Meanwhile, Sayers rehabs his leg back into shape with the help of Piccolo and the two race across the park. Sayers falls, but quickly recovers to win. Before the following season, Halas asks Piccolo if he would play fullback instead so both he and Sayers can be in the same backfield toether. This turns out to be a successful combination, as Sayers rushes for over 1,000 yards and Piccolo contributes with rushing and catching touchdowns as a fullback. At this time, Piccolo is starting to show signs of illness, getting short of breath and coughing, and begins to lose weight.
Halas asks Sayers if he’s aware of what’s going on with Piccolo and his health, to which Sayers says he doesn’t. After a tough game Halas says that he’s going to bench Piccolo, and then he is sent home to see a doctor. Later, Halas tells Sayers in an emotional scene that Piccolo has been diagnosed with cancer, to which Sayers requests that he breaks the news to the team. When Sayers addresses the team about Piccolo’s condition, he urges that they need to play this game for Brian and award him the game. The team loses, but they stayed true to their words and bring the game ball to the hospital. Sayers wins the ‘Courageous Player’ award following the season, to which he talks about his friend Brian Piccolo in his speech, and that Brian deserves the award and that everyone should pray for him.
The two teammates talk on the phone, as Piccolo’s condition continues to get worse. Sayers is called by Piccolo’s wife to come see him, and in their final scene together, a weak Piccolo and Sayers shake hands and hug one last time. The movie ends with a still shot of Piccolo in practice and the narrator stating the Piccolo died at the age of 26 years old.
This movie was originally a made-for-television film that aired as ABC’s “Tuesday Night Movie of the Week” on November 30, 1971. Due to its success, Columbia Pictures brought it to the theaters but withdrew it soon after that due to a lack of business.
Contributing author: Matt Loede
Brian’s Song – Real Life, Reel Differences
- Sayers wanted to play himself in the film, but the shooting schedule conflicted with the Bears training camp schedule. The role of Sayers was supposed to go to Louis Gossett Jr., but he tore his Achilles’ Tendon before the film, so Billy Dee Williams was selected to replace Gosset Jr as Sayers. James Cann at first turned down the role of Piccolo as he didn’t want to do a TV movie, but liked the script so much that in the end, he decided to go forward with it.
- In the movie, it was coach George Halas who tells Sayers that Piccolo has cancer. In reality, Jim Dooley was the head coach at that time – Halas did not coach after the 1967 season.
- In real life, Piccolo and Sayers were not that close for the first couple of years. Piccolo thought Sayers was arrogant because he didn’t speak to many people, while Sayers thought Piccolo joked around too much.
- The practical joke in the movie where Piccolo tells Sayers that Halas can’t hear in his left ear and that he should stay to the coach’s right side never occurred.
- In the movie, Halas mentions the first pro team he played for was the Decatur Staleys in 1920. This was true; Halas played left end and also coached the team. He bought the team and moved them to Chicago in 1921, then changed the team’s name to the Bears in 1922.
- In the movie, Halas tells Sayers he has competition for the starting running back position but in reality, Sayers was by far the most talented and fastest. Plus, he was the fourth overall pick in the 1965 draft, whereas his competition was an aging veteran in Jon Arnett (who only gained 363 yards on 102 rushes the year before), Ralph Kurek, who was drafted in the 20th and final round in 1965, and Piccolo, who was not drafted at all.
- In the movie, J.C. Caroline, the Bears captian, was part of the decision to have Piccolo and Sayers room together in 1965. In reality, they were not roommates until 1967, when J.C. was no longer playing. Sayer credits then-Bears captain Bennie McRae with the idea of having black and white players room together.
- The movie depicts Sayers and Piccolo as best friends. While they did like each other and did hang out together, Joy Piccolo O’Connell, Brian’s wife, told the Chicago Tribune that Ralph Kurek was truly Brian’s best friend.
- The scene where Brian Piccolo brings a leg lift weight machine into Sayer’s basement and unselfishly helps Sayers rehabilitate his knee did not occur. In reality, the knee machine was loaned to him by the Bears and Sayers credits Tommy Dare as the person who often worked out with him at the Lawson Y in Chicago.
- It’s true that Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring in his senior year at Wake Forest, as he brags on film. In 1964, Piccolo ran for 1,044 yards on 252 carries, scored 17 TDs, and kicked 9 extra points for a total of 111 points scored. This success is why Piccolo was upset that he was not drafted at all in 1965.
- In the movie, Sayers asks Halas if he could be the one who announces Brian’s cancer to the rest of the team. In reality, the opposite occurred – it was Halas who asked Sayers to say something to the team before the game, using a speech that McCaskey (a good friend of both Sayers and Piccolo) wrote.
- The movie shows Piccolo at the New North Hospital of Los Angeles, but in reality, he was mostly treated at the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; he was never in any LA hospital.
- In the movie, Sayers is with Brian at the hospital near the end and through his death. In reality, Sayers was not there because he was with his parents, who had been in a bad car accident. When Piccolo died, Sayers was in a Chicago hospital with pneumonia.
Where Are They Now?
Louis Brian Piccolo passed away on June 16, 1970 at 26 years old. He and his wife, Joy, had three daughters, Lori, Traci and Kristi. Joy Piccolo O’Connell remarried three years later and she, along with their three children, honor Brian through the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund. Brian passed away from embryonal cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer. While it was 100% fatal back in the 1970s, it has a cure-rate of 95% now; Lance Armstrong was treated with this form of cancer and it’s now in remission.
Every season since 1970, the Chicago Bears have honored a player on their roster, as voted on only by Bears players, who best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of the late Brian Piccolo. Initially, only rookies were eligible for the Brian Piccolo Award but in 1992, it was expanded to include all Bears players.
In 1980, the students at his alma-mater, Wake Forest, established the The Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund Drive in his memory. It raised $3,500 in its inaugural year and in May 2009 the fund surpassed the $1 million mark in total donations received. It continues to be a student-led drive.
In 2001, EPSN featured Brian Piccolo in its SportsCentury documentary series:
In 1973, he returned to the University of Kansas, his alma mater, to simultaneously complete his undergraduate degree in Physical Education while serving as the Assistant Athletic Director. He stayed on to earn a master’s degree in Educational Administration while also serving as Assistant Director of the Williams Education Fund for three years. In 1976, he moved on to become the Athletic Director at Southern Illinois University until 1984, when he moved back to Chicago to launch a Sports Marketing and Public Relations firm, Sayers and Sayers Enterprises. In 1984, Gale started Crest Computer Supply Company, later re-named Sayers40, Inc., a technology consulting and implementation firm serving Fortune 1000 companies. He remains actively involved as the Chairman of that company.
In-between his football playing days through now, Gale Sayers managed to write two books, I Am Third (the one which was adapted for the movie, Brian’s Song) and Sayers: My Life and Times. He also authored an instructional paper on the fundamentals of football’s offense strategy, called Offensive Football.
Sayers is the father of one daughter and five sons. He married his high school sweetheart, Linda Lou McNeil, but they divorced and he remarried on December 1, 1973, to Ardythe Elaine Bullard. He and Ardythe are active philanthropists in Chicago, where he’s involved with organizations like Cradle Foundation, the Marklund Children’s Home, and the Piccolo Fund. He also started the Gale Sayers Foundation, whose mission is to help the underserved K-12 schools in Chicago through the use of technology-based learning.
Gale does not appear to be very active in Social Media. He has a twitter account, @Kansas_Comet, which has approximately 4,000 followers but no tweets since June 2011. There doesn’t appear to be a Facebook page for Sayers, but there is a page for the Gale Sayers Foundation.