The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project running through mid-July detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
As legend goes, sometime after Bears running back Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonic cell carcinoma, he told his wife: “You can't cry. It's a league rule."
In the early ’70s, that sentiment seemed to stretch from the NFL to its fan base. Then Piccolo’s story changed everything. A 90-minute ABC-TV movie on the running back’s friendship with teammate Gale Sayers, a bond that only strengthened as Piccolo’s cancer progressed, tugged America’s heartstrings so hard that it’s nearly impossible to find a fan who can talk about the 1971 film without misting up. Brian’s Song was the movie that taught grown men it’s OK to cry.
What was it about the film that generated such strong emotion? Perhaps it was the nuanced performances of James Caan (Piccolo) and Billy Dee Williams (Sayers). Perhaps it’s just the tale of two men—one white, one black, with seemingly nothing in common besides football—who form a strong friendship, organically, in spite of tragedy. Piccolo died in 1970 at age 26, but the movie, as its tagline suggests, is “a true story about love.”
Or, perhaps, the sobs stem from the X-factor that ties it all together: music. Composer Michel Legrand (The Thomas Crown Affair, Summer of ’42) is a master of sweeping instrumentals that amplify a movie’s sentiment, in Brian’s Song nothing tugged the heartstrings more irresistably than the theme, “The Hands of Time.” Legrand's score builds with the story’s arc, the theme presented in countless variations, and by the time Sayers delivers his climactic, heart-wrenching speech—“I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him too. ... Please ask God to love him”—the accompanying theme hits its wistfully saddest note. Even the most hard-bitten viewer has been reduced to a blubbering heap, in a good way.