Gale Sayers, Gridiron Great Whose Book Inspired Classic Telepic ‘Brian’s Song,’ Dies At 77

Gale Sayers, the Hall of Fame tailback for the Chicago Bears, has died at age 77. For sports fans of a certain age, simply hearing the theme song for the 1971 ABC telepic Brian’s Song is enough to make one misty. That film was based on Sayers’ memoir I Am Third, and it covered his friendship with Brian Piccolo. Arriving as rookies at the same time, they competed at the running back position and were the first Black and White players to share a room together. Sayers was fast as lightning out of Kansas, and was considered a can’t miss prospect who was nicknamed The Kansas Comet. Piccolo came from Wake Forest, an overachiever who rushed for more yards than any other college back, but whose diminutive stature at 6′ 205 pounds made him a longshot to even make the Bears team. He did make it and they became a one-two punch backfield, but they are remembered for far more than that. They became close friends and when Sayers’ career was threatened by a devastating knee injury, Piccolo practically moved in with him to supervise his rehab. Piccolo shortly after was diagnosed with cancer that proved terminal, and he died at age 26. When Sayers was voted an award as pro football’s most courageous athlete in 1969 for his recovery from knee surgery, he said at the banquet that “Brian is the one who should get this award. He is the one who knows about courage.” Sayers gave his pal the trophy the following day when he visited him at Memorial Hospital. Here I am, getting weepy again just thinking about the marvelous performances by Billy Dee Williams as Sayers, and James Caan as Piccolo. Sayers was a five-time All Pro who scored 39 TDs on the ground before his own career was cut short by injury. Here is that speech, in what still has to be one of the best sports movies ever made:


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