The TV Guide ad for the film promised “a true story about love,” and it delivered: Love of a game (football) and love between two friends who played it together in the pros until one died of cancer at 26.
What "Brian’s Song" became, though, was a true story about the love TV viewers can have for a 90-minute movie. It’s lasted 50 years.
Airing on ABC November 30, 1971, the film chronicled the brief but intense relationship between Brian Piccolo, a white player for the Chicago Bears, and Gale Sayers, who was Black, forged after each came to the NFL team in the mid-1960s (Sayers as a draftee, Piccolo as a free agent) and burnished through four seasons of play.
They formed a bond on and off the field, at one point assigned as on-the-road roommates (a Bears interracial first). In late 1969, his fourth year as a running back, an ailing Piccolo removed himself from a game in Atlanta. Back in Chicago, tests revealed cancer, and unsuccessful surgeries followed.
In May 1970, with Piccolo in the hospital, Sayers dedicated his George S. Halas Award for Most Courageous Player to his dying friend in an awards-banquet speech that hushed a room as it captured headlines: "I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too," he said. "Tonight, when you hit your knees (to pray), please ask God to love him, too." Piccolo died June 16, 1970.
"Brian’s Song," based on Sayers’ 1970 memoir "I Am Third" (written with sportswriter Al Silverman), explored the unlikely bromance.
Piccolo (played by James Caan a year before his breakout role in "The Godfather," is portrayed as a live-wire jokester at odds with the near-monosyllabic and reserved Sayers (Billy Dee Williams, a year before his own star rose in "Lady Sings the Blues").
From the introductions and initial personality-driven tensions to Piccolo’s grim diagnosis – testicular cancer, unmentioned in the film thanks to 1971 TV standards – it offers a moving account of the brief nexus of their professional and personal lives, however embellished. (Piccolo was treated in New York and Chicago, not in Los Angeles, and Sayers, seen at Piccolo’s bedside, was unable to be there at his death.) Shelley Fabares co-starred as wife Joy Piccolo, with Judy Pace as Linda Sayers and Jack Warden as legendary Bears coach George Halas.
The "ABC Tuesday Movie of the Week" aired in a watch-when-it's-on-or-miss-it-forever era, and a weeping nation did. "Brian’s Song" was then the highest-rated made-for-TV film, and ranked as the second most-watched program of that week, attracting nearly half of all homes using TV. A notable fan: President Richard Nixon, who called it “one of the great motion pictures that I have seen... one that every American ought to see.”
It was nominated for eleven Emmy Awards, including lead-actor nods for Caan and Williams, and won five, including Outstanding Single Program, Drama or Comedy. It also won awards from the Producers Guild of America (PGA) and the Writers Guild of America (WGA), as well as a Peabody. And the haunting Michael Legrand score, with its five notes that alone could level the brawniest of viewers, won a 1972 Grammy.
The true story about love shared by white guy nicknamed Pic and the friend he dubbed Black Magic had both football and facts in its favor to help deflect a racial animus still infecting television in the early 1970s.
Only a year earlier, NBC’s "My Sweet Charlie" tested network nerves with its fictional telling of the friendship between a pregnant white teenager (Patty Duke) and black lawyer (Al Freeman, Jr.). But "Brian’s Song" resonated: Months after airing, it even had a brief theatrical release. It also left a curious prime-time template in its wake – the disease-of-the-week movie – that came to be mocked as the decade played out, among them "Eric," "The Boy in the Plastic Bubble," "Walking Through the Fire," and "Something for Joey."
A half-century later, "Brian’s Song" endures as one of TV’s most beloved sports films. Its legend was reinforced in 2020, when Sayers’ died at 77, prompting Piccolo's daughter Lori to note the two friends were “together again” and his widow Joy, who remarried in 1973, to reflect that the longevity of her husband’s story “amazes” her after 50 years.
“Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of 26,” intones narrator Halas (Jack Warden, in an Emmy-winning performance), at the conclusion of the film. “He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who miss and think of him often. But when they think of him, it's not how he died that they remember, but rather how he lived. How he did live."
Halas died on October 31, 1983, on what would have been Brian Piccolo’s 40th birthday.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Brian's Song' turns 50: How the classic TV movie brought the tears