When Chicago Bears teammates Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo became roommates in 1967, the first time NFL players of different colors shared accommodation on the road, it hardly looked like a good fit.
Sayers, 24 at the time, was already an established star, a soft-spoken black man who usually spoke only when issues of social justice were discussed. Piccolo, of the same age, was white, a talkative and a die-hard wildcard who rivaled Sayers to play in the backfield after being undrafted and climbing the cab squad on the match day roster.
But the lasting friendship that formed between the two became the subject of “Brian’s Song,” a 1971 television film that remains one of the most popular sports films of all time. It rarely resonated more than Wednesday, after the announcement of Sayers’ death at 77.
“It amazes me,” Joy Piccolo O’Connell said in an interview from her home in Wisconsin. “It was 50 years ago.”
The two grew closer in 1968, when Piccolo generously supported Sayers’ attempt to come back from the first of several knee injuries that ultimately shortened his career. When Piccolo was diagnosed with advanced testicular cancer the following year, Sayers steadfastly stood by his side.
Piccolo lost his battle with disease in 1970, less than a month after Sayers received the league’s George S. Halas Courage Award and delivered the speech that became the centerpiece of the film:
“He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to delude himself and be mistaken about his opponent – cancer,” Sayers said at the awards dinner, a scene repeated in ABC movie by actor Billy Dee Williams.
“He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who utters the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It’s mine tonight, it’s Brian Piccolo tomorrow. … I love Brian Piccolo and I would like you all to love him too. Tonight when you hit your knees, ”Sayers concluded,“ please ask God to love him. “
Williams tweeted Wednesday that “My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers. Playing Gale in Brian’s Song has been a real honor and one of the fires of my career. He was an amazing human being with the kindest heart.
In 1967, hotel room assignments were usually made by post, and the running back was the only location on the Bears team where players of different colors were thrown together. But then general manager Ed McCaskey, a member of the Halas family who ran the club, blessed the move – and with good reason.
As a senior at Wake Forest, in a 1963 game against Maryland, Piccolo walked to the Terrapins sideline and brought in Maryland running back Darryl Hill – the only black player in the league. at the time – with him in front of the student section. Then he put an arm around Hill’s shoulders, silencing the crowd.
But Joy Piccolo O’Connell, who remarried, believes the biggest obstacle to the friendship between Piccolo and Sayers was more about personality than color.
“Brian loved being with people, loved to talk and couldn’t talk enough in public,” she said, “and Gale was extremely calm.
Indeed, Sayers said in an interview in 2001 that Piccolo’s constant jokes discouraged him at first. Piccolo, likewise, told biographer Jeannie Morris that he thought Sayers was “arrogant… I didn’t see him talking to a soul the whole week we were together.
From that rough start, Sayers and Piccolo forged a bond strong enough to resist injury and disease and push back the lazy assumption that men of different colors, from different backgrounds, couldn’t care less about each other. others like brothers.
“They showed the film the other night,” Piccolo O’Connell said, “and we’ll have inquiries through the (Piccolo) foundation…
“But it’s amazing,” she concluded, “how the story goes on and on. “
AP writer Don Babwin in Chicago contributed to this report.