In the early ’70s, Brian’s Song became must-see TV for millions. The speech that provides the film’s most powerful moment happened 50 years ago tonight.
As explained by Mike Vaccaro the New York Post, Bears running back Gale Sayers paid tribute to teammate Brian Piccolo during the Pro Football Writers Awards Dinner, at what is now the Sheraton Times Square in Manhattan. Sayers, who recovered from a serious knee injury to lead the league in rushing in 1969, won the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player award.
Typically awarded in August, Sayers asked for the presentation to be included with the May dinner. And for good reason. Piccolo was seriously ill from cancer that was diagnosed in November, and he’d live only 22 more days.
“Compare his courage with the kind I’m supposed to possess,” Sayers said. “There was never any doubt that I’d return, knee injury or no. But think of Brian and his fortitude in the months since last November, in and out of hospitals, hoping to play football again, but not too sure at any time what the score was or might be. He has the heart of a giant. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day, every day of his life. . . .
“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas Award. It is mine tonight, it is 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.”
The following year, Brian’s Song debuted on ABC, starting Billy Dee Williams as Sayers and James Caan as Piccolo. When it first aired, Brian’s Song was the most-watched made-for-TV movie in history.