The 1971 movie “Brian’s Song” was focused on Brian Piccolo, a Chicago Bears player who was stricken with terminal cancer during his playing days. Although Piccolo was the subject of the film, “Brian’s Song” was about the friendship developed between Piccolo and teammate Gale Sayers. Piccolo succumbed to cancer in 1970, and Sayers died Wednesday at 77. Actor Billy Dee Williams, who portrayed Sayers in the hit movie, said his heart was broken after learning of Sayers’ death.
Gale Sayers’ football career
Gale Sayers played his college football at Kansas and was a first-round pick in the 1965 NFL draft. The Chicago Bears selected him with the fourth overall pick. Sayers was dominant from the get-go, rushing for a career-high 14 touchdowns in his rookie season.
The 6-foot running back was First-Team All-Pro in the first five of his NFL seasons. He rushed for a career-high 1,231 yards in his second year in the league. Sayers was known for his elusiveness, and it’s been said that he was Barry Sanders before there was Barry Sanders.
Injuries forced Sayers into early retirement. He played just two games in each of the 1970 and 1971 seasons. He retired during the 1971 season. Sayers played his entire career with the Bears and he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
‘Brian’s Song’ was inspired by Sayers’ teammate Brian Piccolo
Brian Piccolo was an undrafted running back who hooked on with the Chicago Bears as a taxi squad (practice squad) player in 1965. He became the backup to Gale Sayers in 1967 and the two became the first interracial roommates in NFL history, according to The Washington Post. Although they didn’t start off as the best of friends, they became very close, especially after Piccolo’s cancer diagnosis.
Piccolo’s diagnosis and the friendship he had with Sayers inspired the movie “Brian’s Song” and became a huge made-for-TV film. The two became very close as Piccolo helped Sayers through his injury rehabilitation, while Sayers was there during his illness until he died in 1970.
When Sayers was honored with the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player Award, he dedicated it to Piccolo. Sayers told the crowd in attendance that the committee had given the award to the wrong person. Piccolo died at the age of 26.
Billy Dee Williams heartbroken over Gale Sayers’ death
Billy Dee Williams played Gale Sayers in the made-for-TV movie “Brian’s Song.” The movie was about Sayers’ Chicago Bears teammate Brian Piccolo (played by James Caan), who was diagnosed with cancer. The teammates developed a strong bond during their time with the Bears until Piccolo died in June of 1970.
Sayers died Wednesday at the age of 77. Sayers’ death hit home for many, including Williams. Williams was crushed by the news, and posted a message on his Twitter account.
“My heart is broken over the loss of my dear friend, Gale Sayers,” Williams wrote. “Portraying Gale in Brian’s Song was a true honor and one of the nightlights of my career. He was an extraordinary human being with the the kindest heart. My sincerest condolences to his family.”