James Caan on stage at Paramount Picture's 50th Anniversary Celebration of "The Godfather" Q and A at the Paramount Studios Lot in Los Angeles, CA on Tuesday, February 22, 2022. (Photo: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages) via AP Images

Gifted actor James Caan died today at the age of 82, leaving behind a remarkable list of memorable characters he played on the big screen and television. Yes, and today, upon hearing the news, I feel a good bit older.

Rick Cleveland

Younger viewers likely will remember Jimmy Caan from playing Will Farrell’s daddy in “Elf.” His most famous role, surely, was that of Sonny Corleone in “The Godfather,” perhaps the greatest movie ever made.

But I will always remember him best for his role as Chicago Bears football player Brian Piccolo in “Brian’s Song.” There’s a story there. Today, I’d like to tell it.

“Brian’s Song” came out on television in 1971. It was the ABC Movie of the Week, and it hit me like the proverbial ton of bricks. I was 18, trying my best to become a man. I watched with my brother Bobby and my mother on the console TV in the den of our Hattiesburg home.

I wasn’t expecting much, to tell you the truth. TV movies usually weren’t especially good in those days. I didn’t know much about Caan’s work, and Billy Dee Williams, his co-star, was yet to become as widely known as “Brian’s Song” would make him.

I loosely knew the story before watching the movie. I knew that Sayers was one of the greatest football players I had ever witnessed. I knew that he and Piccolo had been Bears teammates in the same backfield. I knew Piccolo had died. There was so much I did not know.

So we watched and the film not only drew us in, but gripped us and gripped us tightly. The late William Blinn’s award-winning script was powerful. But it was the acting — Caan’s Piccolo, Williams’ Gale Sayers and Jack Warden’s George Halas — that made the film so compelling. 

Blinn’s script won an Emmy. Warden won a Peabody Award for best supporting actor. Caan and Williams were both nominated in the best leading actor category. Neither won, and I am not sure how you would have awarded one over the other. Both were terrific.

You probably know the story: Piccolo and Sayers are teammates, Sayers by far the more talented of the two. They become friends. Sayers, a generational athlete, is injured and Piccolo takes his place in the lineup and is the star of a huge Bears’ victory. Meanwhile, Piccolo helps Sayers in his recovery, even challenging him in a race in which Sayers stumbles, but still wins. Piccolo switches positions to fullback and becomes a starter in the same Bears backfield as Sayers.

But then Piccolo begins to lose weight and his performance declines. He is diagnosed with cancer, loses a lung and eventually his life. There are so many poignant scenes filled with pathos and often humor.

Sayers and the Bears are about to play a huge game while the critically ill Piccolo is hospitalized. Sayers challenges the team to win the game for Piccolo, a feat they can’t quite pull off. When the players visit the hospital afterward, Piccolo teases them that the line in the old Ronald Reagan movie wasn’t, “Let’s lose one for the Gipper.”

By then, we were laughing through watery eyes. Then came the scene in which Sayers, being presented the Halas Award as the Bears’ most courageous player, tells the crowd they have chosen the wrong player, that he was accepting for his friend, Brian Piccolo. “I love Brian Piccolo,” Sayers says, struggling for the words, “and I’d like all of you to love him, too. And tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”

By then, the three of us were sobbing, Mama openly while Bobby and I tried to hide our emotions, which neither of us did very well.

A day or two later, our good pal Tim Floyd, the future famous basketball coach, was visiting and Mama told him about the movie and about how Bobby and I cried like babies. Tim laughed and laughed and said something like, “Real men don’t cry.”

Flash forward a few months to the next summer. The re-runs are on and “Brian’s Song” is playing again on the TV in our den. This time, Floyd, future coach of the Chicago Bulls and New Orleans Hornets, has joined us to watch. I made sure of that.

We get toward the end of the movie. Billy Dee WIlliams is making his speech. Mama, Bobby and I hear a muffled sob from across the room. We look. Tim has his head buried in one of the pillows on our couch.

My mama, bless her heart, gets the points for what she said during the closing credits: “Timmy Floyd, what was that you said last year about real men?…”

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Rick Cleveland, a native of Hattiesburg and resident of Jackson, has been Mississippi Today’s sports columnist since 2016. A graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a bachelor’s in journalism, Rick has worked for the Monroe (La.) News Star World, Jackson Daily News and Clarion Ledger. He was sports editor of Hattiesburg American, executive director of the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame. His work as a syndicated columnist and celebrated sports writer has appeared in numerous magazines, periodicals and newspapers.
Rick has been recognized 13 times as Mississippi Sports Writer of the Year, and is recipient of multiple awards and honors for his reporting and writing.