Warning: Spoilers Ahead
Buzz Kulik’s “Brian’s Song,” would answer sociologist Robert Francis Winch’s question “Do opposites attract?” While Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo were not a married couple, their relationship fits perfectly within Winch’s question. Both of them were running backs for the Chicago Bears and joined the team in 1965. However, their backgrounds are different. Sayers played six seasons leading the league in rushing twice, was named to four Pro Bowls, selected to four All-Pro teams, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977. Piccolo, on the other hand, played five seasons for the Bears, made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Wake Forest, and mostly saw action on special teams.
The biggest difference was their skin color; Sayers was Black, while Piccolo was White. When Sayers and Piccolo joined the Bears in 1965, the United States was in the middle of the Civil Rights Movement and most of the country was divided among racial lines. This became a problem when the two became roommates during road games. At the time, hotels did not allow blacks and whites to room with each other. But the policy did not stop the Bears captains from putting Sayers and Piccolo together, who struck a friendship. One that proves essential during the 1969 season.
Sayers and Piccolo’s friendship later became the premise of the Emmy Award-winning film, “Brian’s Song.” First broadcasted Nov. 30, 1971, as a part of ABC’s Movie of the Week, the turning point comes when Bears owner George Halas (Jack Warden), chairman Ed McCaskey (David Huddleston), and safety J.C. Caroline (Bernie Casey) tell Sayers that he will be rooming with Piccolo whenever the team goes on the road. Sayers is delighted but is warned by Caroline that the two will face, and have to overcome the racial abuse from the hotel clerks. While the decision is risky, it works out for the long-term. It not only improves Piccolo and Sayers’ friendship, but the teammates also encourage each other, especially when Sayers is informed that Piccolo has been diagnosed with embryonal carcinoma and may never play football again midway through the 1969 season.
Despite the circumstances, Sayers dedicates the rest of the season to Piccolo. When he is not playing, Sayers calls or visits Piccolo in the hospital, who is optimistic he will beat cancer and come back in 1970. Prior to Piccolo’s diagnosis, the friends learned they would be a part of the starting lineup at the end of training camp. The emotional part of the movie takes place towards the end. Sayers is receiving the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award and dedicates the speech to Piccolo, whose condition has worsened.
"His name is Brian Piccolo. He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent— cancer. He has a mental attitude which makes me proud to have a friend who spells out 'courage,' 24 hours a day, every day of his life. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas Award. It’s mine tonight— and Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow.”
Later, Sayers visits Piccolo at the hospital one last time. In an emotional scene, the two friends reminisce. As the movie comes to an end, Piccolo died from embryonal carcinoma on June 19, 1970, at the age of 26.
50 years after its premiere, the impact of “Brian’s Song” lives on. The movie is filled with various emotional moments. Ranging from Sayers’ dedication to Piccolo during the acceptance of the Halas award to the friends final conversation. The movie also shows that two people could overcome racial issues to forge a friendship and be there for each other, no matter the circumstances, especially when Piccolo is fighting cancer and Sayers was by his side.