Sacrificial Rite: Brian’s Song

C’est aujourd’jui Le Paques et j’ai decide….

I mean. Today is Easter and I decided to watch Brian’s Song (Buzz Kulik, 1971) and write up a few thoughts about it. Based on Gale Sayers‘ (and Al Silverman) book, I Am Third, this made-for-TV movie chronicles the close friendship that develops between Chicago Bears runningbacks Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams) and Brian Piccolo (James Caan) from their rookie season in 1965 to Piccolo’s untimely fall to cancer just a few years later.

Brian’s Song aired on ABC in the fall of 1971. It was produced by Screen Gems and distributed by Columbia Tristar. The following is a real time “play by play” of what went through my head as I was watching it:

The film begins with Gale Sayers being driven up to the Bears training camp. He’s wearing a suit and tie when he steps out of the cab. The voice-over informs that the movie is about two men who were different in personality and cultural heritage but who managed to become great friends. The first exchange between Sayers and Piccolo illustrates which of the two is garrulous—Piccolo. He advises Sayers to talk into head coach George Salas’s (Jack Warden) right ear because the left one is no good.

The next sequence, where Sayers drops by and checks in with head coach, is simultaneously comedic and uncomfortable to watch—if you’ve seen it, you know why. If you haven’t seen it, well, imagine how awkward it would be if you kept repositioning yourself to speak into the “good” right ear when in fact, the left one is no worse—and Papa Bear Halas called you out on what the jam preserves you’re doing moving around. Rather than blame Piccolo for the “misunderstanding” and subsequent odd behavior, you just let that thought pattern trickle away from you.

In the first proper practice sequence (technically the first one is at the beginning of the film, but it’s more for background), an NFL Films influence is unmistakable with the hand-held camerawork, the angles, the zoom lens, and the slow-motion.

It’s probably been less than a week that Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo have been at the Chicago Bears’ training camp. Halas calls Sayers in for some news. Sayers is under the impression that Halas wants him to be a flanker instead of a running back when in fact:

“What it comes down to is that J.C. [Caroline (Bernie Casey)] had a notion here and Ed [McCaskey (David Huddleston)] seems to think it’s a good idea. I guess we are due for some changes around here.”

Ed clarifies, “No, no, no. No, it’s not that simple, Gale. J.C.’s idea, and yes, I did agree with him, ‘cause that this is 1965. We’d like the Bears to room together according to position without any regard to race. So we’d like you and Brian Piccolo to room together.”

Sayers doesn’t seem phased at all. It’s not as huge a deal to him as it is to the Bears as a franchise and would be to the rest of the country. J.C. explains, “This is something ‘really’ [serious]. You talking about a white man and a black man rooming together on a team that hasn’t been done before. You’re gonna be called a ‘Tom’ by some blacks and ‘uppity nigger’ by some whites. And when we go on the road, I’m talking about Atlanta, Houston, Miami, New Orleans; it ain’t gonna be no better in Detroit, Minnesota or San Francisco or any other town we play in. You gonna rock the boat, Sayers, and people out there are already seasick.”

Halas adds, “What J.C. is saying is that there may be some pressures. Severe ones.” They’re the only two on the team not rooming to skin color.

Sayers and Piccolo both make the team, otherwise, they wouldn’t be rooming together (as the former points out to the latter).

First game sequence: Oooo very, very NFL Films aesthetically. It’s probably actual NFL Films footage. Sayers gets most of the screen-time on the field. Piccolo is shown on the sidelines (looking towards screen-right) from a low angle. There’s some locker room interview-with-the-press scenage after the game, and then it goes to another game sequence that showcases Sayers agile jumping and dodging talents against the 49ers, the Eagles, and the Colts (?).

There’s a voice-over conversation between Piccolo and Sayers. “Hey, Gale, when you run, do you think about what you’re doing, or do you just do it? “I just do it.” “Well, start thinking about it, will you? I wanna play some too.”

Piccolo and Sayers are having dinner at an Italian restaurant with their wives. Piccolo talks about a “trap play” that quarterback Jack Concannon called, explaining to Mrs. Sayers that a “trap play is when all the linemen go one way and hopefully, the defense goes the same way. If they do, see, it’s a big hole. If they don’t, well, it’s bad news.” In the meantime, Sayers is trying not to burst out laughing. Piccolo continues, “Anyway, Concannon calls this trap play, and uh, it’s beautiful. Forty-three yards, wasn’t it? And Halas sees he’s [Sayers] tired and sends me in. I go in and he comes out. Concannon then figures he’s gonna get foxy. You know, Concannon is…” Piccolo points to his head, making a “kinda nuts” gesture. He continues, “Well, he says, uh, ‘same play.’ The very same play. A ‘trap play’ is also called a ‘sucker play’ because it makes the defense look bad when it works and defenses do not like to look real bad, makes them kind of surly. All the linemen go this way and it’s like I’m looking at a team portrait of the Los Angeles Rams.”

Game Three: extreme high angle long shot over a game with the Rams? Voice-over some hate mail that Piccolo got. Again, footage is of Sayers’ running magic.

Sayers is getting an award and all he can say is thank you. He had a speech prepared; the words just wouldn’t come to him. I can relate.

Practice Two: Second year at training camp, something is amiss in the air.

Game Four: against the 49ers. Ah, here comes the extreme low angle shot from underneath the huddle. It’s a 28-toss for Gale. Sayers gets hurt in a tackle. A yellow flag is thrown. His right knee.

Sayers is not taking well at all to not being able to play. It’s anxiety and fear that he doesn’t want to admit. Piccolo tells him, “Unless you come back 100 per cent, people are gonna say: ‘Piccolo got in on a pass. Lucky break.’ I don’t want it like that. I’m gonna whip you, Sayers. But you gotta be your best, or it won’t mean a thing. You’re not gonna be one second slower or one degree weaker. I am gonna work your tail off to get that leg back in shape…for my sake. You got that?”

Sayers is listening to the Bears defeat the Rams and how well Piccolo played. I bet he feels restless and slightly defeated.

Piccolo and Sayers go for a run in a park. After they finish, Piccolo says, “I think I owe you a beer.”

“I think I owe you a lot more than that,” Sayers responds.

Practice Three: Another year of training camp. Very brief but rapidly cut and with grunts.

Halas puts Piccolo and Sayers in starting backfield.

Game Five: against the Steelers. Wow. Piccolo and Sayers TD. More voice-over of the two. The filmmakers knew that there’d be no way they could or should re-film those game sequences.

Weigh In: Piccolo lost another pound. He’s a fullback and 206 pounds. Piccolo remarks, “First you sweat all the fat off of us and then you complain that we’re too thin. You know, you’re a very hard man to please.”

Game Six: Against the Rams? Piccolo’s not cutting it on the field. Sayers is on the sidelines. Sideline scene of Sayers and Piccolo getting some water. He’s not breathing well. Piccolo makes a comment about pollen and Sayers brings uppollen.

Halas is going to send Piccolo back to Chicago. Halas is concerned about Piccolo, who’s been suffering on the field.

Game Seven: Memorial Stadium. Halas tells Sayers that the hospital has found that Piccolo has cancer and part of his right lung has to be removed. The way Sayers—Billy Dee—reacts is just heart-breaking. He fumbles to the wall and leans against it with his hand up, like he would lean against a lover. Shock, disbelief, devastation. Locker room. For a man of so few words, such unassuming disposition, delivering bad news ought to be simpler than expressing joy or gratitude. Sayers begins, “You all know that we hand out a game ball to the outstanding player. Well, I’d like to change that. We just got word that Brian Piccolo is sick, very sick. And it looks like he might never play football again or for a long time. And I think we should dedicate ourselves to give our maximum effort to win this game and give the game ball to Pic. We can all sign it and take it up to the hos—oh, my God.” Sayers makes it through with long, frequent pauses and tears.

Game Eight: Another Rams game. What is this piano music playing over the footage? Sayers running again. Piccolo considers being a kicker.

Game Nine: Slow-motion of Sayers trying to pick up a tumbling ball. It probably wasn’t for more than five to ten yards, but in slow-motion, it’d look a lot worse.

Piccolo’s wife tells Sayers and his wife Joy (Shelley Fabares) that Brian’s cancer is back. Another tumor was found. She hasn’t told him yet. She wants Sayers to be there when the doctor gives him the discouraging news. Sayers and Piccolo are playing something called “The Thinking Man’s Football.” It’s gotta be important because the first shot of the scene is a close-up of this game, where you can read the name. The camera zooms back to reveal the components of the game: a couple of dice, a notepad, what might be a ruler, and a plastic or paper replica of a field. Sayers tells Piccolo about the new tumor and that another operation is needed when Mr. Eberle (Stephen Coit) comes by to get a signature. The camera zooms in for a close-up on Piccolo as he hears the news—such a TV thing to do.

Sayers says, “Brian is a professional athlete, Mr. Eberle. A professional gets into a habit after a while. He gets himself ready for a game mentally as well as physically because he knows those two things are all tied up together. And there’s a clock inside, and when the game starts, he’s 100% mentally and physically. And what Brian is saying is that you’re scheduling the game before he can get ready. Couldn’t it wait until over the weekend?”

Piccolo goes under again. Sayers wins the George S. Halas Most Courageous Award. His acceptance speech: “I’d like to say a few words about a guy I know, a friend of mine. His name is Brian Piccolo, and he has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage which allows him to kid himself and his opponent, cancer. He has the mental attitude which makes me proud to have a friend who spells out courage twenty-four hours a day, every day of his life. Now you flatter me by giving me this award. But I say to you here and now, Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas award. It’s mine tonight and Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow. I love Brian Piccolo and I’d like all of you to love him too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”

It’s the night before/after the surgery and Piccolo is talking to Sayers on the phone. There’s a diagonal split screen from upper left corner to lower right corner (Piccolo on the right side and Sayers on the left). Piccolo says, “I’m hanging in there. I heard what you did at that banquet last night. If you were here I’d kiss you.” Sayers replies, “I’m glad I’m not there, then.” Piccolo responds, “Hey, Gale, they tell me you gave me a pint of blood. Is that true?” “Yep.” Camera goes in for a close-up and Joy Piccolo’s face is no longer in the frame. “That it explains it then.” “Explains what?” “I’ve had this craving for chitlins all day.” There’s something very intimate about the way this conversation is presented—and I don’t mean sexually. It’s emotionally intimate.

Ending voice-over (over footage of Piccolo and Sayers running through the park): Brian Piccolo died of cancer at the age of twenty-six. He left a wife and three daughters. He also left a great many loving friends who miss him 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.

Ending credits: training camp scenes photographed on location at St. Joseph’s College in Renssaler, Indiana.

For their cooperation in supplying special action sequence footage, Screen Gems wishes to thank NFL Films and Steve Sabol, Jack Newman, Ernie Ernse, and Joe Guarracino.

There’s a special featurette featuring the real Gale Sayers. Billy Dee Williams really captured or emulated very well Sayers’ soft-spoken demeanor. Sayers valued his college years for teaching him how to study, how to be a scholar. He says that 1968 was his best year. Sayers isn’t sure how exactly a movie came about as a result of writing that book about his friendship with Piccolo. He did approve the script. Jack Warden sufficiently exuded Halas mannerisms.

According the IMDB’s awards page for this Brian’s Song, Jack Warden won an Emmy for his performance as Papa Bear Halas. William Blinn won an Emmy (adaptation achievement) and a Peabody Award.

Click here for the Wikipedia page on the film.

Click here for a 2008 interview with Gale Sayers.

And in some Atlanta Falcons news, Jason Elam will soon learn all about off-the-charts pollen count. And, of course, unless you’ve been Rip Van Winkle-ing it over the past week, you’d know that a tornado moseyed through parts of downtown Atlanta, hitting the Georgia Dome, among other places. Click here for some first-hand insights on what it was like to experience such a sensory punch.

3 thoughts on “Sacrificial Rite: Brian’s Song

  1. Pingback: Le Vendredi Meilleur 2009 « Sitting Pugs: Sports Movies

  2. jack newman

    My name is Jack Newman I was the guy who did the sound on bryans song at the bears summer camp & and the bears pre season game .I must say it was alot of fun. The guy we worked with was Tony Thomas , he was a very nice guy but you could see he was not ready to work with real pro football players.They have a drill at camp that you run thru a gauntlet of players with large pads on their forearmes,and when the two actors ran thru the line the pros gave them a little extra shot but nothing anything dangeres.I remeber B D Williams asking Tony Thomas to ask the real players to take it easy on them.James Cann had real blood on his mouth and both laughed,I think he had played football at whyoming in school I thought he was a hard NY guy.I laughed and Tony said Jack what what do you think ,I said look over there ,you have guys like Doug Buoffone and other asssins ,thats all they need need to hear that the actors were wining,If they hear that, the next time they will come out of the gauntlet headless!


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