Butkus’s image was a metaphor for what pro football players had become over 50 years: preternatural creatures, cold, insensible to hurt.
For me, that image remained true only until the next fall, when ABC aired on the last Tuesday evening of November a made-for-TV movie about a pair of Butkus’s teammates, all-pro running back Gale Sayers and his backup, Brian Piccolo. “Brian’s Song” wasn’t another football story about the testosterone in which the game is steeped. It was, instead, about two men who fell in love after meeting on the gridiron.
Sayers, played in the movie by Billy Dee Williams, was trying to rehabilitate a career that, after five exhilarating seasons, was endangered by knee injuries. Piccolo was trying to stave off cancer that threatened his life at 26.
“[A] remarkable feature of the film is how unapologetically sentimental it is,” Tom Oates, who teaches a course on “Brian’s Song” at Iowa, where he is an American Studies professor, told me Wednesday by email. “The promotional poster called it ‘a true story about love,’ and the men are portrayed as openly declaring their deep affection for each other in private and public settings.”
In the final scene, Sayers grips the right hand of a bedridden Piccolo. Piccolo murmurs he is tired. Sayers then lets him go and walks a few steps across the hospital room to Piccolo’s wife and his own. The three embrace, sobbing, before Piccolo’s wife walks back to her ailing husband’s bedside and, in that moment, becomes his widow.
It was the first time I recall crying at an event outside of my own family. It was the first time it dawned on me that football players were like us: vulnerable.
“I too find the film emotionally affecting, in part because it allows for such an intense expression of love within a gender tradition that usually suppressed or mocked it,” Oates wrote.
So when Sayers died Wednesday at 77, it wasn’t how he electrified the game — as O.J. Simpson before O.J. Simpson, Walter Payton before Walter Payton and Barry Sanders before Barry Sanders — that I recalled most immediately. I didn’t instantly think of his combination of speed and guile that was so extraordinary — in a career short-circuited after just those five full seasons — that Hall of Fame voters made him the youngest inductee at 34.
Instead, I thought about how he so courageously humanized the game.
“ 'Brian’s Song’ … recognizes the tragedy that lurks beneath the athletic spectacle,” Oates noted. “Piccolo didn’t die of football-related ailments, but Sayers’s knee injury and the constant reminders of the precarity of their employment highlight that their moment in the spotlight is short, even before Piccolo gets sick.”
Sayers wasn’t the first superstar athlete to have a stellar career extinguished by injury. And his friend Piccolo wasn’t the first athlete in the public light to lose his or her life to some inexplicable tragedy. The first Black Heisman winner, Ernie Davis, never had a pro career after leukemia cut short his life.
But the pro football world in the burgeoning TV age of the 1960s witnessed the breathtaking abstract expressionism in motion that was Sayers. He was a Houdini with the football. How did he escape? He was a rocket if need be. There he goes! Grounding him seemed impossible — until it didn’t. And the decline came as he was trying to encourage his understudy, Piccolo, against a most discouraging of diagnoses.
Piccolo died June 16, 1970, a year and a half before “Brian’s Song” aired. Sayers played just two games in the 1970 season and two more the next. In his last game — on Oct. 17, 1971 — he gained eight yards on five carries in a 13-0 loss at the San Francisco 49ers. It was all so unfair.
“Brian’s Song” was adapted from little more than one chapter in Sayers’s memoir, “I Am Third,” published New Year’s Day, 1970. The title was from a placard Sayers saw in his college track coach’s office that stuck with him: God was first, others were second, and he was the third most important. The book is about the obstacles that confronted Sayers after not even 30 years of life. Growing up in an Omaha ghetto. Meeting housing discrimination at the University of Kansas that he protested against in a sit-in. Faced with his first knee injury in the pros that saw the ACL, medial collateral ligament and meniscus in his right leg shredded. Steeling himself for his best friend’s demise and for the pain of that friend’s family in the aftermath.
A third edition of Sayers’s memoir was published in 2001. By the end of that decade, Sayers’s wife, Ardie, said she noticed a change in her husband’s behavior. In 2013, he was diagnosed with dementia. He then sued the NFL, charging it did not protect him from concussions that left him with headaches and loss of memory. The suit said he suffered from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the disease that has afflicted so many football players. Sayers filed the lawsuit three weeks after the NFL agreed to pay $765 million to settle a class action by thousands of former players who accused the league of hiding the sport’s damage to the brain that left many of them with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, dementia and other ailments.
But Sayers is third. So he later ordered his lawsuit withdrawn. And on Wednesday he joined that list of stars of his era, before and after who succumbed to the disease induced by the sport they loved. John Mackey. Ollie Matson. Cookie Gilchrist. Frank Gifford. Ken Stabler. Others were so wracked by the havoc of the trauma they could wait no more and took their own lives.
“Football is an especially dangerous game,” Oates reminded, “but all sports invite us to imagine fragility as well as strength.”
Gale Sayers did that for me.