Football on Film: 'Brian's Song'
Cold, Hard Football Facts for Oct 19, 2005
By Cold, Hard Football Facts contributor J. Michael Whalen
"Brian's Song" (1971; rated G)
Stars: James Caan, Billy Dee Williams
Director: Buzz Kulik
Writer: William Blinn (based on the book "I Am Third" by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman)
(= punt; = safety; = field goal; = touchdown)
We're fairly certain that about 97.2 percent of our readers have never seen a G-rated movie. We know ... nothing but the best XXX titles in your well-worn collection of celluloid standards.
Well, don't let the G rating of this made-for-TV classic fool you. "Brian's Song" chronicles the true story of Chicago's Brian Piccolo, who died of cancer at 26, and the unique friendship he developed with teammate and future Hall of Famer Gale Sayers. The first interracial roommates in the history of the NFL (Piccolo was white, Sayers is black) began their relationship as rivals competing for the team's starting running back position when they arrived at their first training camp in 1965. Piccolo spent that season on the practice squad, while Sayers went on to arguably the greatest rookie season in NFL history. Still, they eventually formed a bond that transcended race, competition and any other obstacle that threatened to come between them – even a terminal illness.
Williams is perfectly cast as the supremely talented, unusually shy Sayers, sometimes saying more with his eyes or a grimace than he ever could with words. Caan, for the most part, is rock-solid as the hardworking chatterbox Piccolo. They play off each other smartly, as Sayers helps Piccolo improve his game (initially a bench warmer for the Bears, Piccolo would become the starting fullback) and Piccolo assists his friend in bouncing back from a serious injury and, to an extent, in emerging from his shell.
It's hard to find any real fault with "Brian's Song." In addition to the fact that it clocks in at a tidy 74 minutes (which gives you plenty of time to follow it up with a grainy Pamela Anderson-Tommy Lee double bill) the performances are strong, the film is lovingly made (Bears players, coaches and staff members sit in as extras) and the mixture of realistic training camp scenes and actual game clips is well-coordinated. Even the hardest of men will find themselves getting misty by the end.
Perhaps you're unfamiliar with Piccolo and you're sitting there going, "WAAAAAAAAAAAH! You ruined the end by telling me he dies!" Well, not really. In the film's opening minutes, a voiceover by actor Jack Warden (who plays Bears legend George "Papa Bear" Halas) tells the viewer: "Ernest Hemingway said that 'Every true story ends in death.' Well, this is a true story."
Behind-the-Scenes Cold, Hard Football Facts:
- Sayers (known as the "Kansas Comet") was a two-time All-American at the University of Kansas and was the NFL's 1965 Rookie of the Year. He scored 22 touchdowns during his initial campaign (a 14-game season), which remains the rookie record to this day.
- Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring during his senior season (1964) at Wake Forest. Despite that accomplishment, he went unselected in the NFL's 14-team, 20-round 1965 draft.
- The Bears had two selections in the first round of the 1965 draft and certainly made the most of them. They took Dick Butkus with the No. 3 overall pick and Sayers with the No. 4 pick.
- Sayers made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977 at age 34, the youngest inductee ever.
- Piccolo's coach at Wake Forest was Beattie Feathers, who played for the Bears and, as a rookie in 1934, became the first NFL player to rush for more than 1,000 yards in a single season. Behind Hall of Fame fullback Bronko Nagurski, Feathers picked up 1,004 yards on just 101 carries (9.9 YPC).
- Sayers was the greatest kick returner in NFL history. He still holds the record for career average per return (30.56 yards) and is tied with four other players for returns for touchdowns (six, accomplished most recently by Kansas City's Dante Hall).
- Only three players in NFL history have scored six TDs in a game. Sayers is the last to do it. In a game against San Francisco in his rookie year of 1965, Sayers ran for four touchdowns and returned both a punt and a kick for scores.
- Piccolo played in just 51 NFL games, rushing 258 times for 927 yards (3.6 YPA) and catching 58 passes for 537 yards (9.3 YPC). He scored five touchdowns.
- Sayers has also been elected into the College Football Hall of Fame, the Kansas Hall of Fame and the Black Athletes Hall of Fame.
- Halas was one of the NFL's founders in 1920 and was with Chicago (initially the Decatur Staleys) as a player, coach and owner from 1920 to 1983. He is second on the all-time coaching victory list with 324. In 40 years as a coach, Halas had as many NFL championships as losing seasons (six). He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1963.
- Sayers's short but brilliant career was ruined by injuries. He underwent knee surgery in the middle of the 1968 season but returned in 1969 to rush for more than a 1,000 yards. Additional injuries brought his career to an early end in 1972.
- Sayers appeared in four Pro Bowls and was named player of the game three times.
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