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Game Film, No. 4: Brian’s Song (1971)

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Breaking down the X’s and O’s of the top 10 football movies of all time. At number four: The one that makes your dad cry — even if he blames it on pollen.

Is it getting dusty in here, or is it just me?

Brian’s Song is a contradiction. It’s a TV movie that begins with a Hemingway quote. It’s incredibly dated, yet has aged impeccably. It’s a masculine movie that makes grown men cry. A funny movie about death. A true story about two men who seem like Hollywood cliches. A football movie that won four Emmys and a Peabody Award. All packed into 74 minutes. Since movies have to be 70 minutes long to be considered full length, it’s both one of the shortest sports movies ever made, and also one of the most memorable.

By all rights, it should have been a good movie that was forgotten in time. Instead, it became a classic. A movie father show sons. The love for it is almost universal. It was so popular on TV, and it got released in theaters. It has a 92 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and is on every list of the best TV movies of all time, often right at the top. And, since you can’t discuss Brian’s Song without mentioning crying, it’s also right at the top of any list of movies which make men cry. Hell, it’s even got a guy crying on the damn poster.

It’s a film that tackles vast, complicated subjects like friendship, competition, race, and death, without ever coming off as preachy. That’s incredibly rare for a TV movie, especially one made in a time when only second-rate entertainment was found on television. Just as unique on TV at that time: an excellent cast, which the film also delivers. Considering all that, Brian’s Song is somewhat of a miracle.

Let’s break it all down. But first the trailer:

MVP

The question is, James Caan as Brian Piccolo or Billy D. Williams as Gale Sayers? The answer is both. That’s right, folks -- a tie. And that’s not a cop-out. It’s a testament, to the togetherness of the two men on screen. It’s their real-life friendship, their bond — their equality — that hooks us and won’t let go. They are inseparable, and that’s the whole point. It’s the essence of bromance.

At first, Caan seems to steal the movie. He’s the funny one, teasing Sayers and playing a practical joke on him the first time they meet. Williams, meanwhile, plays Sayers as quiet and sullen -- not the easiest character to embrace. But Sayers has quite the character arc in the film, coming of his shell (with the help of Piccolo), overcoming extreme adversity (with the help of Piccolo), and eventually becoming very open and emotionally expressive (most to and about Piccolo).

By the end, you care equally for them both, but even more for the combination of them, and it’s hard to pick a favorite. Together, they portrayed an iconic friendship; you can’t separate them any more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich -- they are just one.

The crazy thing is both almost didn’t play the part. First, Sayers wanted to represent himself, but his training camp schedule wouldn’t allow it. Louis Gosset Jr. was cast but tore his Achilles playing basketball just before filming, and Williams got his shot. Caan, meanwhile, initially turned down the role because he was concentrating on bigger movies, but was won over by the script. So this became his last role before The Godfather.

Key role players

  • Jack Warden makes his second appearance on this list (after The Replacements), both as football team owners. Here, as Bears founder/owner/coach George Halas, he’s a perfect mix of stern yet likable, tough but fair. He almost made the list a third time as a Rams assistant coach (and Warren Beatty’s best friend) in Heaven Can Wait.
  • Not much time is given to the wives, but Shelley Fabares stands out as Joy Piccolo, the loving wife who tragically loses her husband at a very young age. She also went on to another similar football role -- in TV’s Coach, starring another alum of the list in a similar role, All The Right Moves’ Craig T. Nelson.
  • The creatives behind the camera. The writer, William Blinn, who won an Emmy for the screenplay he adapted from Sayers autobiography, I Am Third. Blinn put together a believable, relatable, touching drama with a delicate touch. Meanwhile, the affecting musical theme came from songwriting hall of famers Alan and Marilyn and Bergman, winners of three Oscars, including one which became a No. 1 hit (”The Way We Were”). The bottom line: Just about everyone involved in this movie was overqualified.

The opponent

Cancer. An easy one to hate. You don’t need backstory or performance -- it’s innately unlikeable and easy to root against. In the beginning, there’s also competition (the two compete for dominance on the depth chart at the RB position) and race (the first mixed-race roommates in the history of the league) which threatens their friendship until cancer arrives.

Rookie of the Year

Bernie Casey wasn’t just a former NFL player, and he was a first-round draft pick (ninth overall) by the 49ers in 1961. He played six of his eight seasons for the Niners, and after a slow rookie year, averaged 53 catches and 764 yards in his last four seasons before moving to the Rams.

This was his fourth credited role -- in three years after his retirement from football. The next year, he’d have seven more, and 81 total by the time of his death in 2017, including this classic.

Honorable mention: Hall of Fame LB Dick Butkus also made his acting debut here, in an uncredited role. He would go on to have 50 credits.

Key moment

As I’ve hammered home previously in this space, movies are all about set-ups and payoffs, and this film nails it by bookending the second act of the movie with scenes of Sayers picking up year-end awards. In the first, Sayers is accepting his Player of the Year trophy, and it’s a very happy occasion, but he struggles to find any words, stammering at the podium a moment before walking off the stage with nothing but “Thank you.”

That pays off in the second when he’s accepting an award for courageousness, and it’s a melancholy occasion. He’s struggling under the weight of his best friend’s cancer but delivers the emotional speech the movie is remembered for.

Highlights

  • The movie’s real turn takes place when Sayers suffers his knee injury in the 1968 season in a Week 9 win over the 49ers (who he also had his best day against) when he was leading the league in rushing yards and yards per carry. That makes Piccolo the starter, but he doesn’t want it that way and dedicates himself to helping (even forcing) Sayers to rehab his injury. They fight, they train, they bond, and the rest of the movie is built on the strength of that bond. It’s an inspirational sequence that influenced all the copycat scenes you’ve seen over the nearly 50 years since it aired.
  • Piccolo is getting cancer (SPOILER ALERT). Caan plays him so well, and they make him such a funny, likable character, that it hits all the harder. Even more so when viewed through the eyes of Sayers, who had forged such a meaningful bond with him, it’s the kind of heartbreaking scene, so many of these top-notch football films have. Only in this film, there’s more than one.
  • And, of course, Piccolo’s death, though inevitable, is still a gut punch. And that’s the magic of this film: They steer quickly and directly from that to such an uplifting moment to end the film -- giving you a complicated, melancholy ending packed with all kinds of emotion. And of course, Jack Warden’s resonant final line in voiceover -- which has stuck with me since I first saw this film as a kid, and will likely continue with me until I die.

Lowlights

It’s dated. There are times when the music, the mix of footage, or the out-dated style takes you out of it for a beat or two. But the movie still plays. The feeling survives. What made it work in 1971, still works. And the ill-advised 2001 remake proves that more current stylistically and technologically doesn’t mean better.

Football scenes

The used actual Bears footage -- from practice and game --intercut with footage of Williams and Caan. Sometimes their voices were even laid over, weaving it all together nicely. Shooting the actual game footage is more than you could expect for the time, especially for a TV movie.

NFL cameos

Besides Casey and Butkus: Hall of FAME TE Mike Ditka (listed in the credits, but only visible in the highlights), QB Jack Concannon (same), and DL Ed O’Bradovich (actually getting a couple of lines).

Realism

Again, it was based on a true story, so they’re already starting in the red zone. But they drive it the rest of the way home by picking two athletic-looking actors who you buy as the pair they’re portraying.

Sure, you can tell it’s not them in the game film, but that is less a flaw than a testament for how hard simulating that was back then and also how inimitable Gale Sayers was.

Best line

Another tie:

Voiceover: Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26. He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who love him and think of him often. But when they think of him, it’s not how he died that they remember. It’s how he lived. How he did live.”

And

Gale Sayers: “I love Brian Piccolo. And I’d like all of you to love him. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”

Up next

Another oldie but a goodie. Hint: It’s the second straight movie on the list to inspire a remake.

Honorable/dishonorable mentions
No. 10: The Replacements
No. 9: All The Right Moves
No. 8: Any Given Sunday
No. 7: Rudy
No. 6: Jerry Maguire
No. 5: Friday Night Lights