The Defining Generation
If in fact "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" had a minimal impact on race relations, the 1971 made-for-TV move "Brian's Song" certainly did. Unlike the earlier "message movie" that was built around the issue of interracial marriage, the underlying story of "Brian's Song" was not so much about race as it was about friendship. Quite simply, it was the story of two professional football players Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, and how they alternately became a "Bridge over Troubled Waters" each for the other. It was a movie you could not watch without tears, no matter how cynical or tough you were. It most likely would have had the same impact if both characters had been Black or if both had been White. The message was not contrived, it evolved naturally out of the two men's story.
impact of the movie on race relations is referenced by General Colin
Powell who spoke of it in his 1995 autobiography. Powell was serving as a
Battalion Commander in
Sayers and Brian Piccolo were very different men, which was obvious from
the opening scene of the movie.. "Pic," as the latter was
affectionately called, was talkative, extroverted, and easy going. Sayers
was quiet, introverted, and serious. Sayers was virtually assured a
starting spot on the Bears roster and was the fourth overall pick in the
1965 Draft on
What the two young men had in common was that both of them were young (23-years-old with only five months between them), healthy, and determined to build successful careers in professional football. Brian's Song opens with the two of them meeting for the first time in the Spring of 1965 at the Bears training camp. In that opening scene one additional difference is obvious, Gale Sayers was Black and Brian Piccolo was White. Perhaps the single most poignant fact of the movie is that fifteen minutes into the story of their lives, it is easy to forget that difference. Therein lay the true impact of Brian's Song on the American psyche.
Brian Piccolo was born on Halloween 1943, in
Brian's young life revolved around sports: baseball, football, and basket ball in that order. He and Don practiced together and played Little League Baseball together; Don was the pitcher and Brian was the catcher. If there wasn't someone else to play with he would go out by himself and swing a bat or throw a ball up in the air and catch it himself. "My mother was the dominant factor in my athletic career," he said. "She always wanted me to be the best. When I played Little League baseball, she used to be right behind that screen. I was the catcher, and she was right there in my right ear."[i] Brian loved all sports but from an early age his intent was always to play Professional Baseball.
Brian began playing football at
his Senior year Brian was moved to halfback, still only 185 pounds but
much of his earlier "baby fat" had been replaced by muscle and
sinew. He scored the first three times he carried the ball, each on a run
of more than 50 years. For the game he averaged 10 yards per carry. Though
the Central Catholic High Raiders finished the season with a 4-4 record, Brian's athletic
accomplishments earned him a scholarship to
Brian's Freshman year he played for the Baby Deacons under former Chicago Bears and Green Bay Packers running back Beattie Feathers. In 1934 Feathers had been the first NFL player to rush for over 1,000 yards in a single season and is still the NFL's single-season record holder for yards per carry (8.44 yards per attempt) also in 1934. Under Beattie the Baby Deacons struggled to a paltry 2-3 season record although Brian Piccolo, averaging a respectable 4.2 yards per carry, scored 5 touchdowns and 4 extra points.
Deacons lost 10 games during Piccolo's Sophomore year despite "Pic's"
4.2 yard-per-carry average and a total of more than 400 rushing yards for
the season. During his Junior year the Deacons lost eight-straight games before a stunning upset against
returned in the Fall of 1963 to play his Senior year for former
his Senior year Brian Piccolo exploded. Wake Forest was picked to finish
dead last in the Atlantic Coast Conference not only because of their
string of loosing seasons and a 1-8 record the previous year, but because
they had a rookie coach and the smallest team in the conference.
Ultimately they ended the season at 5 - 5, not necessarily great but an
improvement over the previous year and a good start under their new coach.
What did generate a lot of interest in the
a 5-5 season record, for
While finishing his Senior year of college Brian and his high school sweetheart Joy Murrath decided to get married. They set the date for December 26 figuring that Christmas holidays were safely away from anything having to do with football that might pre-empt their plans. With his record season, Pic believed he might even be the Number 1 pick in the November NFL Draft. He was hurt, embarrassed, and more than angry when after 20 rounds with 14 Pro teams his name had not been called. The Nation's Number 1 college rusher was a free agent going into the 1965 football season. After the draft he did get inquiries from Baltimore, Chicago, and Cleveland, but nothing was certain.
Christmas Day the Piccolo family and the Murrath families gathered in
the reception that followed a large ice sculpture sat on the buffet to
cool the shrimp. It seemed out of place until word got around,
During his subsequent football career Joy proved to be as solid as a rock. Brian loved her and when there was a road game he always sent her a post card. Five years later when Brian became sick it was Joy who, assuming the strong character of her husband came to comfort Pic's friends. Along the way the young couple was blessed with three daughters.
ONE daughter was what Bernice Sayers wanted when she learned that she was
pregnant in late 1942. She already had an infant son, a boy named Roger,
so she optimistically picked out the name Gail for his expected little
sister. When the baby that was born in
Sayers family had deep roots in
Gale was seven years old the farmer moved to a rural farm in Speed,
Roger worked various jobs that never brought in enough money to properly raise a family. He excelled as a car polisher and gained a reputation for being the best, but his income was usually only $65 or $75 a week. Gale remembers his mother purchasing chicken's feet…they were only fifty cents for 100 feet…which became a staple of the family diet. Gale even used his BB gun to shoot birds from time to time to fill his belly. Today, as a motivational speaker, Gale Sayers often uses the example of his hard-working but poor father to illustrate to young people the importance of getting an education.
The pressures resulted in considerable tension between Gale's parents, often as a result of drinking to drown their problems. He loves his parents, understands what they went through, and holds no bitterness. They remained together despite common periods of brief separation. In the story of his own life Gale wrote, "At the time I went through this period of growing up--my parents drinking, not enough food in the house, cockroaches over things, no heat in the winter--my parents were at each other all the time. Still, it seemed that all my friends were going through the same thing. Hell, I didn't even realize we lived in the ghetto until I moved away from the ghetto….I learned something from that experience, something I probably couldn't have picked up outside the ghetto. I learned that if you want to make it bad enough, no matter how bad it is you can make it."[vi]
the end of Gale's senior year
only interest in school had been athletics…he admits he got out of high
school not having really learned anything. His talent on the gridiron
however, attracted considerable attention and by the end of his Senior
year he had received letters from hundreds of colleges. He signed letters
of intent for 17 different schools, was courted by all and promised
"the moon," and finally settled for
They did indeed marry the following summer after Gale had spent his first year of college distracted and inattentive to scholastic work. "It (marriage) was the only thing that bailed me out," he says. "I doubt that I would have finished college if I hadn't got married. Marriage helped settle me down. And my grades improved one hundred and fifty per cent."[viii]
began playing for the varsity football team his Sophomore year weighing
only 170 pounds. Slowly he brought his weight up to 185 and in one game
rushed for a
the end of his 4-years as a UK Jayhawk
Gale had rushed for 2,675 yards, caught passes for 408 yards and added 835
yards on kick returns. Already some had begun to compare his style to the
legendary Red Grange and anticipated he would become an NFL legend
himself. Others believed at 6' and only 200 pounds he would never endure
the pounding of the much-larger NFL system. The Kansas City Chiefs were
interested in their home-state Kansas Comet but despite their offer of more money, Sayers
eventually chose to play for the
On Christmas Day 1964 Gayle Sayers played in the North-South All-Star game, opposite a young man named Brian Piccolo. Though the two didn't really talk until they met the following Spring at the Bears training camp, each was aware of the others presence on the field. Brian Piccolo did not know then that Gale was by nature very quiet and hesitant to talk much. "One guy I wasn't impressed with--personality wise--was the Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers," he wrote. "What an arrogant son of a bitch. I didn't see him speak to a soul the whole week we were together."[ix]
The subsequent movie that told the story of Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers of course, did not and even need not have included all this early history of the two young men. Their differences were obvious from the opening scene, Brian was the talkative and easy-going rookie meeting his introverted and decidedly determined teammate. On screen of course it was an obvious fact that the two men were ethnically different, but even that became quickly forgotten among their more diverse personality differences.
men made the final cut that year though for Piccolo, somewhat too small
and too slow, it was a struggle. In fact Pic survived the cut to be placed
on the practice squad and never played a game in his 1965 rookie season.
Sayers, on the other hand, exploded for an incredible 2,272 combined net
yards and scored a record 22 touchdowns. His rushing total was second only
to Jim Brown's more than 1,500 yards. In the second-to-the-last game of
the season alone Sayers ran up a record-tying six touchdowns and 336
combined yards in a 61 - 20 annihilation of the
The 1996 season saw Sayers top his rookie season to lead the NFL in rushing with 1,231 yards and a record 2,440 all-purpose yards. Piccolo at last made the special teams roster, though during that season he only carried the ball three times. It was a disappointing year for Pic who, despite his usual optimistic and casual demeanor, wondered if he was wasting his time with the Bears. The stars on the team however, had come to admire Brian for his drive and determination. He was literally the "heart of the team." He was also ready to always help in any way he could. Dick Butkus' own star had risen and he was a popular speaker. Brian provided much of Dick's material and reviewed all of his prepared comments. Sayers, on the other hand, remained generally to quiet to accept speaking engagements.
The 1997 season saw Piccolo at last get a solid assignment on the Bears' roster as a backup to Sayers. During that season Pic rushed for 317 yards averaging a respectable 4.1 yards per carry. Sayers himself had something of a set-back, turning in only 880 yards rushing and 126 receiving. But the notable event of that year was the pairing of the two in room assignments that made them the first interracial roommates in the NFL.
the time Gale and Pic didn't really know each other well but, just prior
to leaving for a road game at
Perhaps too much is made of the fact that Sayers and Piccolo were the first professional football players Black and White to share a room. The REAL story of the two men is that they became close friends, sharing good times and helping each other through difficult times.
Coach Halas retired after the end of the '67 season and the following year got off to a bad start, the Bears posting a 1-4 record going into the sixth game. Sayers and Piccolo had become so close that Pic could instinctively tell when the starter needed a break. In 1967 when Sayers came off the field after a series Pic would ask him if he needed a break. If Sayers replied that he did Pic would pass word on to Ed Cody on the sidelines, who then passed word to Coach Halas, who in turn would tell Pic to relieve Sayers. It was the long way of doing things. In 1968 the two men knew each other so well that Pic could read the need for a "blow" in Gale's eyes, and the two simply substituted on their own with the coaches' blessing.
The system worked well until the ninth game of the season when, rushing against the 49ers defense, Sayers' knee buckled after a clean but crushing hit by Kermit Alexander. It might well have proven to be a career ending injury and Sayers was personally devastated. While Piccolo rose to the challenge with his best year as a pro, catching 14 passes for 291 yards and rushing 123 times for 450 yards and two touchdowns, he also devoted himself to buoying up his friend, Gayle Sayers. It was the positive attitude, the determination and patience of Brian Piccolo more than any other factor that enabled Sayers to recover and return in 1969 to rush a career high 236 times for 1,032 times.
a summer game against the
the injury to Sayers in the 1968 season Piccolo moved from back-up to
starter but, having cheered and helped his friend to recovery he gladly
returned to a back-up position in 1969 when Sayers returned. Early in that
season he began developing a cough and, following a fourth-quarter
in May Gale Sayers flew to
"He has the heart of a giant, that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent, cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' twenty-four hours a 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."
was not a dry eye in the room. Indeed years later when the film showed
across America, all who heard Gale's simple but profound tribute to a
friend were moved to tears. In far away places like
Gayle Sayers may well be the greatest running back in the history of football. The statistics from his 7-year career are certainly impressive enough. He played in four Pro Bowls and was named Offensive Player of the Game in four of them. When he was unanimously selected to the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1977, the first year in which he was eligible, at age 34 he was the youngest player ever enshrined.
Perhaps however, his greatest accomplishment was the 1970 autobiography he wrote to tell the story of his friendship with Brian Piccolo. Titled "I am Third," it was the basis for the 1970 movie Brian's Song, starring James Caan (as Piccolo) and Billy Dee Williams (as Sayers). The immediately popular true story was released in a 2001 remake.
The strange title of Sayer's autobiography found its roots in the mantra of his college track coach Bill Easton. The phrase so stuck in Sayer's mind that, after asking Coach Easton to explain it, he created and thereafter wore a gold medallion with the words engraved on the back. Coach Easton's explanation: "The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am Third."
Gale, "If you think about it, it is a good philosophy of life. I try
to live by it."[xi]
* Joe Namath was named the AFL Rookie of the Year
Morris, Jeannie, Brian Piccolo-A Short Season, Rand McNalley
& Company, Chicago, 1971
[ii] ibid, p 70.
[iii] Ibid, p 75.
[v] Morris, Jeannie, ibid, p 85.
Sayers, Gale, I Am Third, Viking Press, 1970, p 92.
[vii] Ibid, p 107.
[viii] Ibid, p 139.
[ix] Morris, Jeannie, ibid, p 89.
[x] Ibid, p 130.
[xi] Sayers, Gale, ibid, p 41 - 42.
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