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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

Brian's Song

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 8:42 AM by Jenny Levins

The Iredell County Public Library will be showing the movie, “Brian’s Song” featuring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams on Monday, Dec. 7, at 6 p.m. Library patrons voted “Brian’s Song” as their favorite sports movie as part of our “Hometown Teams: How Sports Shape America” sports exhibit. On Tuesday, Dec. 8, at 7 p.m. the library will host a special “Iredell County & N.C. Sports Show & N’ Tell.” We are asking sports fans to bring their own photographs, newspaper clippings, plaques, and memorabilia such as cards, posters, schedules, pennants etc to show and tell the audience about.

I first watched “Brian’s Song” as a boy in the 1970s and I admit it left my eyes watering. The movie tells the story of the friendship between Chicago Bears running backs Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo and the death of Piccolo on June 16, 1970 from cancer. Brian Piccolo was an outstanding football player in high school, but stood 6 ft tall and weighed only 205 lbs. Despite his high school accomplishments he was considered too small and slow and received only two college scholarship offers. One of the two was from Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem. Piccolo proved the doubters wrong and during his senior year at Wake Forest in 1964 he led the entire nation in rushing and scoring and was named the ACC Player of the Year. That same year he married his high school sweetheart.

It was again Piccolo’s lack of size and speed that caused him to go unselected in the 1965 NFL draft. Undeterred Piccolo tried out for the Chicago Bears as a free agent and made the team. It was with the Bears where he met running back Gale Sayers known as the “Kansas Comet.” Sayers was a star at Kansas and the fourth player chosen in the 1965 draft. He would be the NFL Rookie of the Year and go on to have a Hall of Fame career as one of pro football’s greatest running backs. During the 1960’s players were still segregated by race in hotel-room assignments. The Bears management wanted to integrate the team more fully and asked both Sayers who was black and Piccolo who was white to room together. It was a small change, but a big step in the 60s. When Sayers suffered a devastating knee injury in November 1968 Piccolo supported his friend and helped in his rehabilitation and comeback in 1969.

It was in November 1969 a year after Sayers injury that Piccolo became ill. He was diagnosed with embryonic cell carcinoma a rare form of cancer. This time it was Sayers who supported Piccolo in his fight to live. Piccolo died on June 16, 1970 at the age of 26. A month earlier Sayers had received the George S. Halas Award for Most Courageous Player and during his acceptance speech he told the audience, “I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees to pray, please ask God to love him, too.” Sayers was among six Chicago Bears pallbearers including Dick Butkus at Piccolo’s funeral.

In 1970 Gale Sayers and Al Silverman wrote “I am Third” the memoir of Gale Sayers life from his childhood in Kansas through his college and pro football career. It is one of the best autobiographies I have ever read. The title came from the inscription on a necklace Sayers was given while growing up. It read, “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” It was Sayers account of his friendship with Piccolo in “I am Third” that led to the movie “Brian’s Song.”


Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article was published in the Statesville Record and Landmark in December 2015