A Friendship Sure to Make You Cry

Another example of friendship from the movies for my series, New Year; New Types of Friends is one that still makes men cry. Brian’s Song is about the real-life friendship between two Chicago Bears running backs, Gale Sayers (starring Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan). The 1971 movie shows how brotherly love and selflessness provide an emotional depth that every friendship needs.

About Sayers and Piccolo

Gale Eugene Sayers (May 30, 1943 – September 23, 2020) was already an established star. Known as the “Kansas Comet” for his college career at the University of Kansas, Gale spent his entire seven-season career with the Chicago Bears. He set a league record by scoring 22 touchdowns—including a record-tying six in one game. He gained 2,272 all-purpose yards en route to being named the NFL’s Rookie of the Year in 1965. Sadly, a serious knee injury in 1970 ended his career. Despite his short career, Sayers was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977, making him the youngest inductee ever. He was named to the NFL’s 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary All-Time teams. 

Louis Brian Piccolo (October 31, 1943 – June 16, 1970) went undrafted in 1964 after leading the nation in rushing and scoring during his senior season at Wake Forest University. He went undrafted but made the team for the 1965 season on the taxi squad so he could practice but not suit up for games. The following year, he made the main roster but played mainly on special teams. In 1967, Piccolo got more playing time when Sayers’ first knee injury sidelined him for much of the year. Piccolo’s biggest statistical year was 1968, when he posted career bests with 450 yards on 123 carries, scored 2 touchdowns, and had 28 receptions for 291 yards. In 1969, Piccolo became starting fullback, with Sayers returning as halfback, placing the two in the same backfield on offense.

How Their Friendship Started

Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo became roommates in 1967, the first time NFL players of different colors shared accommodations on the road. 

According to the Washington Post, room assignments were generally done by position at that time. For the Bears, running back was the only slot where players of different colors were put together. Then-general manager Ed McCaskey gave the move his blessing — and with good reason. As a senior at Wake Forest, Piccolo walked over to the Terrapins sideline and brought Maryland running back Darryl Hill — the only Black player in the league at the time — with him to the front of the student section. Then he threw an arm across Hill’s shoulders, silencing the crowd.

Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo weren’t exactly close during their early years as Chicago Bears teammates in the 1960s. Sayers, a soft-spoken Black man, only raised his voice when matters of social justice were discussed. Piccolo, a talkative white man, was a habitual joker. He was competing with Sayers for playing time after being undrafted. 

“My first two years, he wasn’t fun to be around,” Sayers 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.” Piccolo is quoted as saying “One guy I wasn’t impressed with — personality-wise — was the Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers,” 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.”

Part of the charm of their friendship (in real life and in the movie) was how much Sayers and Piccolo actually engaged in a sort of constant brotherly love via insult humor. There is a scene where Piccolo uses the “N-word” to force Sayers to train harder. The exchange devolves into laughter in a way that negated the situation and showed the selflessness and emotional depth of their friendship.

What Made Their Friendship Unique

Truth be told, Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo became close during their time together on the Bears. Their friendship was unique because these two roommates competed for the same position while loving and supporting each other throughout some very difficult times.

In 1968, Piccolo unselfishly supported Sayers’ attempt to come back from the first of his several knee injuries. When Piccolo received a diagnosis of late-stage testicular cancer the following year, Sayers remained by his side until cancer eventually took Brian’s life at age 26.

Gale Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams) comforts Brian Piccolo (James Caan) in a scene from 1971's "Brian's Song."
Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) comforts Brian Piccolo (James Caan) in 1971’s “Brian’s Song.”
(Columbia Pictures)

Three weeks before Piccolo’s death, Sayers spoke about Piccolo at the Pro Football Writers Awards Dinner in New York City, accepting the 1969 George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award for overcoming a serious knee injury to lead the league in rushing.

“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 of Piccolo “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.”

When Gale Sayers passed away in 2020, he and Brian Piccolo likely had a joyous reunion in the next life.

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GodBuddy Focus

The movie Brian’s Song taught American men that it was OK to cry. The friendship of Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo also shows how men can publicly express their feelings for one another. Men who are comfortable using the word “love” as they speak of a male friend, show the selflessness and emotional depth that every friendship needs. 

For too many years, men in film and television could not show emotion or manly love toward other men. The only exceptions were in scenes on the battlefield or in some brief, usually wisecracking way. This was demonstrated in the first flick about male friendship by the chemistry between Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Their friendship was based on wisecracks. But it also demonstrated a brotherly love that needed a little more than a look when they faced death together. 

Do you have that same type of emotional depth and spiritual connection with another man?

The next post continues my examples of friendships from the motion pictures.


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