There seems to be nothing girls like more than really sappy depressing movies where someone’s true love dies at the end of some tragic disease. I’ve never seen “Love Story” before, but I did sit through all of the extremely painful “Terms of Endearment” and it has to be the worst movie I have ever seen. I suppose there’s got to be something about a man that doesn’t want to let him show off his emotional core in front of other people no matter how cathartic it might be. Of course, the exception to the rule is “Brian’s Song”.
Perhaps it’s because it’s all about football and camaraderie, and planning one’s comeback well after it becomes obvious that you’ve played your last down, but “Brian’s Song” can melt the hearts of the coldest, most emotionally stunted men in the universe, leaving them sobbing in delicate, weeping hordes of sadness. It’s the “Old Yeller” of adult males, and no real man will ever fault another for getting a bit misty in it’s presence. Men have been known to emotionally break down at the merest presence of it’s simple solemn theme music.
“Brian’s Song” is the story of two football players Brian Piccolo (James Caan) and Gale Sayers (Billy Dee Williams). These were the ’70s, so of course it was Billy Dee Williams’ job to play every significant Black role put to film. Now that’s Denzel Washington’s job. Both Piccolo and Sayers were drafted in the same year by the Chicago Bears. Sayers was Black, almost painfully soft-spoken, and headed straight for the Hall of Fame. Piccolo, on the other hand, was one of those fast-talking, joke-cracking, slow White guys with more heart than he knew what to do with and lucky as hell to make the team as Sayers’ backup. They became the first interracial roommates in the history of the Chicago Bears and good friends. When Sayers’ blows his knee out in a preseason game before their second season together, Piccolo inherits Sayer’s job, but is intent and determined to help his friend and rival rehabilitate the knee back to one hundred percent so he can beat him out for the job honorably. For a brief moment of glory, they get to be in the same backfield together, but Piccolo starts to break down and is eventually diagnosed with cancer.
It’s hardly a fair fight.
“Brian’s Song” draws you in with the friendship of two utterly likeable guys and then sucker punches you with the less talented one’s inevitable though brave demise. The fact that it’s all true only better serves it in its goal of reducing even the best of our ranks into a wailing slobbering likeness of Richard Simmons, and yet somehow we’re all the better because of it. Many movies have tried to knock off their main character and get under your tear ducts: “Pride of the Yankees,” “Knute Rockne: All American,” “Bang the Drum Slowly”. But none ever hit home the way this one does. By the end, everyone is so sad that you can barely understand a word of dialogue, but it remains the best example of the most different of men competing fairly and getting along peacefully ever filmed. Too bad someone had to die to get it on screen.
I first saw Brian’s Song on the north side of Pittsburgh in 1983. The camaraderie among the 1965 Bears portrayed in the the film reminds me so much of the Steelers in its glory days of the ‘80s. Franco Harris’s three story home across the street from old North Park near Steeler stadium was a gathering place for players and neighbors alike. Those larger-than-life gridline heroes were part of our community, approachable, friendly and involved like Brian and Gale in our community on as well as off the field.