The evening was winding down, at last, the rostrum of speakers dragging the proceedings ever closer to the midnight hour. Much of that night of May 25, 1970, had been a procession of sharp one-liners and clever retorts, 600 people gathered in a ballroom at the old Americana Hotel on 7th Avenue and 53rd Street, bedecked in black tie, sipping champagne.
Frank Gifford, the emcee, had been smooth and effortless as he’d announced the various award winners at the annual Pro Football Writers Awards Dinner. Dick Cavett had been urbane and charming, Pete Rozelle endearing. Joe Kapp and Hank Stram, whose Vikings and Chiefs had knocked heads 4 ½ months earlier in Super Bowl IV, swapped zingers.
By the time the last award was given, the crowd was weary, and some were eager to beat a hasty escape for the exits. Out of respect they lingered, because the guest of honor was someone they all liked a great deal: Gale Sayers, running back of the Chicago Bears. On Nov. 10, 1968, Sayers had complexly blown out his right knee at Wrigley Field while the Bears were playing the 49ers.
Most believed Sayers would never play again. Yet in 1969, against all reasonable odds, the Kansas Comet had not only returned to the Bears, he’d played all 14 games and somehow led the league in rushing with 1,032 yards for an awful team that went 1-13. He was the writers’ unanimous pick to win the George S. Halas Most Courageous Player trophy.
Normally, that award was presented in late August, in Chicago, at the Halas Dinner, but Sayers had requested his presentation be moved up. Few asked why; many assumed he wanted to be able to focus on training camp.
They’d soon learn why.
Sayers was called to the dais and there was a round of respectful applause. Many of the men in the room had interviewed Sayers before; they knew he was a man of few words. Most started reaching for their topcoats as Sayers thanked his teammates, and Halas, and his doctors.
“It is something special to do a job many say can’t be done,” Sayers said quietly, barely audibly. “Maybe that’s how courage is spelled out — at least in my case.”
More polite clapping. Typical Sayers: Quick, Humble, Bland, Unmem… “But I’d like to tell you about my friend, Brian Piccolo.”
This was unexpected. Piccolo? He was an unremarkable running back who’d partnered in Sayers’ backfield as a mostly forgettable blocking back. He’d filled in ably when Sayers had been hurt in ’68, but he wasn’t a name most in the room were terribly familiar with.
“In the middle of last season, Brian was struck down by the deadliest, most shocking enemy any of us can ever face — cancer.”
Now he had the room’s undivided attention.
“Compare his courage with the kind I’m supposed to possess. 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.”
He paused. Six hundred men in tuxedos sat in silence, glassy-eyed, numb. Then, somehow, Gale Sayers summoned the strength to finish his speech with this: “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.”
Fifty years ago Monday, 600 men waited a beat, then jumped to their feet, filling the room and the hotel (now the Sheraton Times Square) with a roar most could still feel in their ears years later. Brian Piccolo died 22 days later at the age of 26, a few blocks away, at what is now called Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
On Nov. 30, 1971, “Brian’s Song,” starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, premiered on ABC. It was the most-watched made-for-TV movie in history, it remains one of the greatest sports movies ever made, and it is impossible to watch, even now, without feeling much the same way those 600 men in tuxedos felt when it was born at the Americana Hotel on May 25, 1970, a man asking you to love his friend as he did.