Reel Life: 'Brian's Song'
By Jeff Merron
Special to Page 2

In 1969, Gale Sayers began writing his autobiography, "I Am Third." It included a chapter on his friend and roommate, Brian Piccolo. Sayers' account of his relationship with Piccolo was turned into one of the most popular TV flicks of all time, and, of course, a sports movie classic.

Brian's Song
 
"Brian's Song" first aired on Nov. 30, 1971, won an Emmy Award, was frequently rerun on TV, and became a staple of school assemblies -- its message of racial harmony, friendship, gutsiness and compassion struck a chord then, and still does three decades later.

It's a great story, and as Jack Warden intones at the start, a true one. True enough? You decide.

In Reel Life: Jack Warden plays Bears head coach George Halas. At the start of the film, he narrates: "Hemingway said, 'Every true story ends in death.' Well, this is a true story."
In Real Life: In Chapter 11 of his 1932 novel, "Death in the Afternoon," Ernest Hemingway wrote, "All stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who would keep that from you."

In Reel Life: When Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) arrives in training camp, Brian Piccolo (James Caan) is there to greet him.
In Real Life: So were the real Chicago Bears. These scenes were filmed during the team's 1971 training camp at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, Ind.

In Reel Life: Piccolo reminds Sayers that they had met at the All-Star game in June. Sayers says he doesn't remember. "Golly, that's OK," says Piccolo. "I can see why you might forget, but I sure couldn't. No way. That was a heckuva talk we had, man. I mean, I walked up and said: 'I'm Brian Piccolo. I hear we'll both be playing for the Bears.' And you said -- I'll never forget it -- you said, 'Uh-huh.' "
In Real Life: In "Brian Piccolo: A Short Season," a biography by Jeannie Morris, Piccolo says Jack Snow and Bob Hayes both left a real impression on him at that game. Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, he adds, "One guy I wasn't impressed with -- personality-wise -- was the Kansas Comet, Gale Sayers. What an arrogant son of a bitch. I didn't see him speak to a soul the whole week we were together."

Sayers didn't like Piccolo much at first, either. "My first two years, he wasn't fun to be around," Sayers told the Chicago Tribune in 2001. "He would tick you off because he always had a joke. It wasn't my nature to be that way, so I guess I didn't like it at first."

Billy Dee Williams, James Caan
Billy Dee Williams and James Caan filmed scenes for "Brian's Song" at the Bears' 1971 training camp at Rensselaer, Ind.
In Reel Life: Piccolo asks Sayers if he's met Halas. "Talked to him on the phone couple times. That's all," replies Sayers. Piccolo then tells Sayers that Halas can't hear in his left ear, and advises Sayers to stay on his right side. It's a practical joke.
In Real Life: It's a good joke that results in a very funny scene, but it didn't happen. Sayers had met Halas months before, when he signed with the Bears after being selected by them in the first round of the 1965 draft. He'd also seen him a few weeks earlier, during the Bears' rookie camp at Soldier Field.

In Reel Life: Halas meets with Sayers, and tells him about "The first pro team I ever played on. The Decatur Staleys in 1920."
In Real Life: Halas indeed played for the Staleys in 1920. One of the original NFL teams, the Staleys were owned by the Staley Starch Works company. Halas played left end, and also coached. He bought out the owner and moved the team to Chicago in 1921, then changed the team's name to the Bears in 1922. The rest, as they say, is history.

In Reel Life: Halas tells Sayers he has lots of competition, including Jon Arnett, Ralph Kurek and Piccolo.
In Real Life: Halas may have said this. Sayers, in the short documentary, "Gale Sayers: First and Goal" (included on the DVD), says, "Halas didn't believe in starting rookies. [But] I saw the running backs they had. I was faster, quicker."

This was obvious to Halas, too. Arnett was a proven veteran, and had a solid season in 1964, rushing 102 times for 363 yards. But he was getting old. Kurek was also drafted in 1965 in the 20th and final round. Piccolo had signed with the Bears as a free agent after not being drafted. Sayers, on the other hand, was the fourth player selected overall in the draft, and had signed a four-year, $100,000 contract. By the third game of the season, Sayers was in the starting lineup.

George Halas
An Oct. 31,1933, photo of George Halas, after he turned the Decatur Staleys into the Chicago Bears.
In Reel Life: Piccolo is clearly concerned about making the team.
In Real Life: It was a legitimate concern, considering that, in a bit of an upset, he hadn't even been drafted. Piccolo was an All-American and had been assigned a "babysitter" by the NFL on draft day, to assure that he would sign right away with the NFL before the AFL had a chance to get to him. "When it was over and I didn't get picked -- well, I could hardly believe it," Piccolo says in "A Short Season." "Four hundred and forty draftees and none of 'em me. I was disappointed and embarrassed. Really embarrassed. And I couldn't understand it. I kept thinking there must be a mistake."

Piccolo was familiar with high-level mistakes. Earlier, the AP had named him to their second-string All America team -- on defense, despite Piccolo having played only two defensive downs all season.

In Reel Life: Bernie Casey plays Bears captain James "J.C." Caroline.
In Real Life: Casey was an excellent wide receiver for the Los Angeles Rams and San Francisco 49ers before beginning his acting career. He played from 1961 to 1968, catching 359 passes for 5,444 yards and 40 touchdowns. "Brian's Song" was the third of his 53 films to date.

Caroline played defensive back for the Bears for 10 years, during which he intercepted 24 passes.

In Reel Life: At the team meeting, J.C. says there's a $1,000 fine for losing your playbook.
In Real Life: That sounds about right. George Allen, who coached the Rams and Redskins in the 1960s and 1970s, fined players $1,000 for the transgression. Losing an NFL playbook remains a big deal. In 1998, for example, the Giants fined players who lost the book $1,500, and withheld their final paycheck until it was recovered, meaning the total fine could run into tens of thousands of dollars. In 1999, the Saints transferred their playbook to CD-ROM, issuing each player a laptop. Losing those could cost a player up to $15,000.

In Reel Life: Piccolo, in a relatively mild moment of rookie hazing, is made to sing the Wake Forest fight song.
In Real Life: Piccolo enjoyed singing. On the bus ride home from a Wake Forest win over Virginia in 1964, he led a four-hour group sing. "It was a clean sing, too -- your grandmother would have loved it," said Demon Deacons head coach Bill Tate.

In Reel Life: The coaches time the players in windsprints.
In Real Life: Piccolo, in "A Short Season," said the Bears had stopped timing players in windsprints in 1965: "So far I've made it through my entire career without anyone ever having put a stopwatch on me."

James Caan, Billy Dee Williams
Caan and Williams look a little winded after running drills.
In Reel Life: Sayers outruns Piccolo.
In Real Life: Caan, who played some college football, was much faster than Williams, and had to slow down to allow his co-star to beat him in the windsprints. He also had to ease up when, in a later scene, Sayers beats Piccolo during a run through a park. Caan and Williams joke about this in their DVD commentary. "I dispelled all of those rumors about black men being fast on their feet," Williams said.

In Reel Life: Sayers goes to Halas' office. "J.C. here had a notion, and he talked to Ed about it, and Ed thinks it's a good idea," says Halas. Ed McCaskey, the Bears vice president, explains: "It's 1965 and it's time the Bears roomed together by position -- without any regard to race." J.C. continues: "We'd like you and Brian Piccolo to room together."
In Real Life: Sayers and Piccolo started rooming together in 1967, two years after J.C. played his last season. Sayers, in "I Am Third," credits Bears captain Bennie McRae with promoting the idea of black and white players rooming together.

In Reel Life: Piccolo walks into his dorm room, and Sayers is moving in. Sayers tells him they're rooming together.
In Real Life: Piccolo was surprised; just as in the movie, Sayers was consulted, but Piccolo was not.

In Reel Life: Sayers tells Piccolo that Pic must have made the team, or else they wouldn't have made them roommates.
In Real Life: Piccolo didn't make the team in 1965; he was on the taxi squad. In 1966, he made the regular roster.

In Reel Life: Sayers and Piccolo are, by all appearances, best friends.
In Real Life: Although "Brian's Song" is based on a chapter in Gale Sayers' "I Am Third," Sayers never claims that he and Piccolo were as close as the movie suggests. Sayers says they came to like each other very much, were good friends, and did hang out together. But, as Joy Piccolo O'Connell, Brian's wife, told the Chicago Tribune last year, "Ralph Kurek was truly Brian's best friend ... Gale and Brian, that was such a small part of Brian's life."

Morris, Piccolo's biographer, agrees. "I had no problem with the first movie," she told the Chicago Tribune. "It was essentially true. They exaggerated Brian and Gale's friendship, but they didn't abuse the story ... I think Brian was a lot more important to Gale than Gale was to Brian."

Morris adds that Sayers was very supportive of Piccolo. But in terms of how close they were to Piccolo, and their presence during Piccolo's illness, Kurek and McCaskey get short shrift in the film.

Brian Piccolo
Brian Piccolo led the nation in rushing with Wake Forest in 1964 and rushed for 927 yards in four NFL seasons.
In Reel Life: When Sayers injures his knee, Piccolo replaces him as starting halfback.
In Real Life: True. Piccolo started his first NFL game the week after Sayers was injured, and did a good job the rest of the season. In 1968, he ended the season with 450 yards in 123 carries, adding 28 receptions for 291 yards. He was back on the bench when the 1969 season started. About midway through the season, he replaced injured fullback Ronnie Bull. He only started a few games after that before falling ill.

In Reel Life: Piccolo sets up a leg-lift weight bench in Sayers' basement.
In Real Life: Sayers began his recovery by lifting weights on what he calls, in "I Am Third," a knee machine, which was loaned to him by the Bears. When he started, he was doing 50 reps of five pounds, twice a day. He maxed out, in the end, at 60 pounds.

In Reel Life: Piccolo brags about how, in his senior year in college, he led the nation in rushing and scoring.
In Real Life: You could look it up. Piccolo ran 252 times for Wake Forest in 1964, piling up 1,044 yards, tops in the country. He also led the nation with 111 points, scoring 17 TDs and kicking nine extra points.

In Reel Life: Much emphasis is placed on how Piccolo works with Sayers to rehabilitate his knee.
In Real Life: Piccolo encouraged Sayers and worked out with him occasionally during this period, but Sayers, in "I Am Third," dedicates the chapter about recovering from his knee injury to Tommy Dare. To get the knee back into playing shape, he and Dare worked out at Chicago's Lawson Y, under a brutal regime directed by former Lions running back Dick Woit.

In Reel Life: Sayers, on the road to recovery, is walking through a Chicago park listening to a transistor radio. A newscaster says, "And in Los Angeles, the Chicago Bears trimmed the Rams by a score of 17 to 16 ... The running game was ably manned by Brian Piccolo, who gained 105 yards in 14 carries."
In Real Life: Piccolo rushed for 100-plus yards once in his career, running for 112 yards in 21 carries as the Bears beat the Saints 23-17 on Dec. 1, 1968. On the following Sunday, the Bears beat the Rams in L.A., 17-16.

Gale Sayers
Gale Sayers was about 60 pounds heavier than little Billy Dee Williams.
In Reel Life: After the surgery, Sayers wraps his knee.
In Real Life: Sayers requested that this be changed in the Disney remake of the movie, which came out in 2001. He said he never wrapped his knee, "because I didn't want any crutch."

In Reel Life: In 1968, Halas is still head coach.
In Real Life: Halas retired as Bears head coach on May 27, 1968. Jim Dooley replaced him.

In Reel Life: Halas tells Piccolo he's going to be starting fullback.
In Real Life: Piccolo had been a backup halfback starting in 1966, mostly substituting for Sayers. But, he said, it had been "my dream to run in the same backfield with Gale; and that would put me right back at fullback, where I had been in college, and where I felt I belonged."

In Reel Life: Gibron weighs his players: "Holloway: 251," he calls out. "Piccolo: 206¼. Skinniest fullback in the league."
In Real Life: Caan and Williams were thrown into a real lineup of real Bears getting weighed. Glen Holloway, the offensive guard who steps on the scale right before Caan, didn't begin his pro career until 1970, and thus never played with Piccolo.

Caan weighed 175 when the movie was made. Piccolo was 6-foot and 205 pounds, according to Total Football. There was an even bigger weight disparity between Sayers and Billy Dee Williams. "He was small," says Sayers, who met Williams during the filming.

"He was about 140 pounds. I was around 200 pounds."

In Reel Life: Sayers goes in to see Halas before the next game, against the Colts. "Brian Piccolo has cancer," says Halas. "They've scheduled an operation for tomorrow morning." Halas says he'll tell the team, but Sayers says no, he'll tell them.
In Real Life: Halas called Sayers on Friday, two nights before the game, to let him know Piccolo had a malignant tumor and would be going to New York for an operation the following Monday. Halas again called Sayers on Saturday night, and asked him to say something to the team before the game. Sayers delivered the speech about dedicating the game to Piccolo, but McCaskey (David Huddleston), a good friend of both Sayers and Piccolo, wrote it.

In Reel Life: Halas tells Sayers that "the doctors don't have any explanation."
In Real Life: What the doctors did know was that Piccolo had little chance of survival. He had embryonal cell carcinoma, a rare disease related to testicular cancer that, at the time, was almost incurable. Now, it has a cure rate of more than 50 percent.

Billy Dee Williams, James Caan
Sayers (Williams) visits Piccolo's (Caan's) bedside ... after somebody took Caan's cigarette and Coke.
In Reel Life: Piccolo is in the hospital. The sign on the exterior says, "New North Hospital of Los Angeles."
In Real Life: After he was diagnosed, Piccolo spent much of his time in New York, at the Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He also was treated in Illinois. But not L.A. "New North Hospital," it appears, was a Hollywood retread that had its origins in the short-lived medical drama, "The Interns," which last aired on Sept. 10, 1971.

In Reel Life: Sayers, accepting the George Halas Award as the NFL's most courageous player, gives an emotional speech. "It is mine tonight; it is Brian Piccolo's tomorrow."
In Real Life: Sayers didn't like the way Williams portrayed him in this scene, believing he looks like an awkward, uncomfortable public speaker. "Four years into my career, I was pretty polished," Sayers said.

In Reel Life: In the hospital, Piccolo tells Joy to take Gale downstairs to give a little girl an autograph. They find out when they get down there that the girl has died.
In Real Life:The girl, described by Sayers in "I Am Third," was a 13-year-old who had broken her neck in a diving accident. Sayers, Kurek, Jack Concannon, and many of the other Bears who visited Piccolo also went to visit the girl. Piccolo took a liking to her, and left her an autographed photo the last time he saw her. "Some weeks later we heard that the girl had passed away," writes Sayers.

In Reel Life: Piccolo's near death. Sayers, on the phone, says he'll be there tomorrow.
In Real Life: Sayers wasn't there in the end, because he couldn't be. He had been tending to his parents, who had been in a bad car accident, and, when Piccolo died, Sayers was in a Chicago hospital with pneumonia.

In Reel Life: There's a long scene where Sayers visits Piccolo' bedside. Piccolo can hardly talk, then tells Sayers he's going to get some sleep. Sayers leaves, and we know Brian is dying.
In Real Life: Caan, in his DVD commentary, says he doesn't recall this, but he's been told that just before cameras rolled on this scene, he said, "Hold my cigarette and my can of Coke, I have to die."

In Reel Life: Piccolo's married, but there's little mention of children except a line that "Joy's expecting again."
In Real Life: Joy and Brian Piccolo had three daughters, Lori, Traci and Kristi, who were between 1½ and 4½ years old when he died. They barely remember their father and know him mostly through the stories others tell about him, but, along with their mother, they honor him by supporting the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, which now supports breast cancer research.





REEL LIFE

ALSO SEE:


Jeff Merron Archive

The full list of our Top 20, plus explanation of the voting

Page 2's Top 20 Sports Movies of All-Time

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Reel Life: 'Remember the Titans'

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Reel Life: 'Raging Bull'

Reel Life: 'The Hustler'

Reel Life: 'Rocky'

Reel Life: "Slap Shot"

Closer Look: Lost in a 'Field' of imagination

Closer Look: 'The Rookie' in reel life

Reel Life: "Bull Durham"





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