A global pandemic enters its third year. Like a runaway locomotive, it shows few signs of slowing down. Athletic events are dramatically affected, with several major international tournaments cancelled outright. Professional football, soccer, basketball and ice hockey stadiums and arenas go dark, countless players enter health and safety protocols, multiple games need to be postponed or rescheduled.
For sports junkies, now with too much time on their hands, any winter holiday TV fix must come in the form of game replays or highlight shows. And so it is I find myself wandering back in time, all the way to the 1960s. Once again a young boy, in the early stages of addiction.
Deep in the recesses of my mind, the distinctive soundtrack of NFL Films reaches out. I absorb the dramatic music and the narrator’s compelling baritone voice. Captivated, I watch beautifully choreographed, slo-motion footage of perfectly thrown spirals, of crunching tackles, of breathtaking runs.
All the while recalling images of the one player my friends and I, in our back yard pickup games, attempt to emulate.
His name is Gale Sayers.
A star at the University of Kansas, Sayers moves on to the pro ranks in 1965, as a first round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. In seven albeit injury plagued seasons, thanks to the majesty of his open field running, his raw speed, acceleration, and vision, he scores 57 touchdowns. His #40 jersey is retired, while entrance to the Hall of Fame beckons.
Still, in so many other ways, it is not his career as an outstanding athlete that defines him. Rather, at least for people of a certain vintage, he will forever be linked to a gut wrenching, made for television, motion picture.
This sports movie for the ages is titled “Brian’s Song.”
First aired in 1971, the film details the powerful bond that evolves between Sayers and teammate Brian Piccolo. Both running backs, they battle directly for the same starting position on the team. Both are hugely competitive, even if different in many other ways. Indeed, Sayers is shy and serious, Piccolo amiable, outgoing and funny. More significantly, Sayers is black and Piccolo white. Regardless, they quickly grow to appreciate the abilities and qualities of the other, becoming the first players in the league from different races to pair up as roommates.
When a catastrophic knee injury forces Sayers to miss the final five games of the 1968 season, it is Piccolo who replaces him as the starting halfback. It is also Piccolo who then drives Sayers through a demanding and arduous post-surgery rehabilitation. Sayers, forever grateful, returns to lead the league in rushing the following year, with his close friend, now at fullback, often leading the way via his devastating blocking.
Despite Sayers' herculean efforts, Chicago struggles mightily throughout the 1969 campaign. And while, in a mid-November game vs Atlanta, Piccolo scores a fourth quarter touchdown, increasingly fatigued and finding it difficult to breathe he removes himself from the action.
The subsequent medical report is devastating. Piccolo is diagnosed with an aggressive form of testicular cancer, which soon spreads to other organs, including his lungs and liver.
Sayers supports his close friend in every way possible, spending hours in the hospital at his bedside. However, Piccolo, his condition rapidly deteriorating, passes away a few months later, in June 1970, at the age of 26.
The month before, Sayers, having recovered successfully from his knee injury, accepts an important league award for Most Courageous Player. Yet, at the ceremony he informs the assembled crowd the judges have selected the wrong man. Tellingly, in a moving, highly charged speech, he announces, “It (the award) is mine tonight. And Brian Piccolo's tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like you to love him to.”
The distressing turn of events further inspires Sayers to write his autobiography, I Am Third. The book becomes the basis for “Brian’s Song.”
I first view the film as a highly impressionable teenager, and have re-watched it on a good number of occasions since. It still resonates, even if many years have slipped by since its release. The first few notes of Michel Legrand’s stirring theme song, The Hands of Time, are instantly recognizable and inevitably bring a tear to the eye. There is powerful imagery as well, especially the scene of Sayers gripping Piccolo’s hand, one black hand wrapped around a white hand. While the speech scene, featuring Sayers’ actual words, remains heartbreaking.
Sayers, through “Brian’s Song”, also speaks to longing and loss, to the anguish and pain people feel when cruelly and suddenly impacted by serious disease, in this case cancer. The film likewise reflects a social conscience, built on civility and respect, in 1970 something of a risky undertaking in America after a decade of serious racial unrest. Ironically, this year, the NFL, through its Inspire Change program, champions many of the same initiatives.
Most of all, “Brian’s Song” examines the potency of love and deep, meaningful relationships. That it is permissible to cry, to show emotion, to express feelings. Though fifty years old, with all that might imply, the film delivers a powerful punch in this regard. Gale Sayers opens his heart and speaks the truth.
Let us remember why. Sayers thrills sports fans because he was a tremendous football player. One only needs download NFL films for confirmation. Yet crucially, through his actions, his faith and, by extension, through a simple film, he strikes a chord with millions of others by virtue of his character, example and devotion.
The novelist Ernest Hemingway once said that every true story ends in death, and Gale Sayers duly dies late in 2020 at the age of 77. Still, if a movie can indeed positively impact the world, every obituary, every article, every piece written about his passing, references “Brian’s Song.”
A half century after the fact, we can still give thanks that this is so.