Gale Sayers, whose story of friendship and race with teammate Brian Piccolo was told in the film ‘Brian’s Song’ dies at 77.
As a key character in the popular 1971 film “Brian’s Song,” Sayers received additional inclusion in the cultural zeitgeist.
The movie details the relationship between Sayers, played by Billy Dee Williams, and teammate Brian Piccolo, portrayed by James Caan, based on Sayers’ autobiography ‘I Am Third,’ as the latter succumbs to embryonic cell carcinoma at the age of 26.
The sharply contrasted experiences and personalities of Sayers and Piccolo made the pair unlikely friends, but given the racial barriers that existed in the NFL in the 1960s, the special relationship that formed proved transcendental.
In 1967, when the two became unexpected roommates, the relationship between Sayers and backfield buddy Piccolo began.
Piccolo was white and had worked his way up from the practice squad; Sayers was black and already a star. They were vying early on for playtime and careers.
On this date in 1971, ABC's Tuesday Movie of the Week, #BriansSong, aired starring #BillyDeeWilliams and #JamesCaan, based on the real-life relationship between teammates Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and the bond established when Piccolo discovers that he is dying. pic.twitter.com/PKC26zBvvT
— Silver Age Television 📺 (@SilverAgeTV) November 30, 2019
But they forged a bond when the club scrapped its policy of segregating players in hotel room assignments by race.
In 1968, when recovering from a torn ligament in his right knee, Piccolo helped Sayers through a difficult recovery period. He made sure his friend shared the credit when Sayers returned the next season to become an All-Pro.
After Piccolo pulled himself out of a game early in the 1969 season because of breathing issues and was diagnosed with cancer, they became even closer.
Sayers first recounted the period of their relationship in his autobiography, “I Am Third,” and then in the 1971 movie “Brian’s Song.”
The made-for – TV film was later released in theaters with actor Billy Dee Williams portraying Sayers and James Caan in the role of Piccolo.
As the disease took its toll, donating blood and offering support, Sayers remained by Piccolo ‘s side.
Just days before Piccolo died at the age of 26, Sayers received the courageous George S. Halas Award and said: “You flatter me by giving me this award, but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. … 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.”