In 1971 ABC premiered a made-for-tv movie named Brian's Song. The movie is based partly on Gale Sayer's auto-biography I Am Third. At it's heart it's a people story (the best sports movies always are). The movie deals with the issue of race relations in Chicago, friendship between competitors and teammates, and the rise of Gale Sayers as a legendary running back.
Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo came to the NFL via different paths. Sayers was the 4th overall selection in the 1965 draft and was also a first round pick in the AFL. Piccolo was an undrafted free agent who walked onto the Chicago Bears to try out at running back.
In 1965 Sayers rushed for 1374 yards and 22 TDs. He had 2,272 all-purpose yards. That same year Piccolo was on the practice squad. In 1966 Piccolo was moved to the active roster as a special teams guy, and in 1967 he was the backup to Sayers. Eventually he would be moved to full-back.
In 1967 George Halas made huge strides in the campaign for civil rights. At that time in the NFL black and white players didn't room together. The un-written rule was that you had to have an even number of black players so that no white player would be forced to integrate. Halas changed that. With the friendship of Piccolo and Sayers he saw an opportunity to make a statement and he acted on it, assigning the two of them as roommates.
The would become close friends, as well as great competitors for each other. When Sayers blew out his knee in 1968 (playing against the 49ers) it should've been a career ending injury, but it was Piccolo who pushed Sayers into rehab. When Sayers was presented with the George Halas award for courage in 1969 he dedicated it to 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," Sayers told the audience. "He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' 24 hours a day of his life. . . . 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."
Some of the story lines are cliches of the genre. Piccolo and Sayers start off not liking each other due to their different natures (Sayers was quiet and reserved while Piccolo was gregarious). Despite this they become friends quickly. When Sayers gets hurt, he's frustrated at home.Piccolo is there to push Sayers to work out and fix his torn up knee. There's the obvious workout scenes with background music (think all the Rocky movies here).
The movie compresses several years of playing time into a very short time frame, but that's ok because this isn't so much a football movie as it is a movie about friendship and loyalty. We see Sayers arriving for his rookie season and Piccolo pulls a prank on him by telling him that Coach Jim Dooley was deaf in his left ear, so if Sayers wanted to be sure that Dooley could hear him he would need to keep on Dooley's right side.
The locker room speech when Sayers breaks the news to the team is heartwrenching but the kicker is goodbye scene in the hospital.
Despite some of it's shortcomings it's an incredible movie. It's short, only 73 minutes long, but it packs a punch.The response to the move was so overwhelming that ABC actually released it into theaters.
My two favorite scenes from the movie are the locker room speech when Sayers breaks the news to the rest of the team that Piccolo is terminally ill, and the workout montage where PIccolo tries to motivate Sayers by insulting him.
A review at the time had this to say about the movie:
Brian's Song can melt the hearts of the coldest, most emotionally stunted men in the universe. It's the Old Yeller of adult males and no real man will ever fault another for getting a bit misty in its presence."
George Halas acceptance speech from the movie
Pallbears at Piccolo's funeral
ESPN biography of Piccolo. Brian's life, a Song of friendship