On June 16, my good buddy Randy texted to our Baseball Texting Group, “Brian Piccolo died 50 years ago today.” Brian died of testicular cancer in 1970 at the age of 26.
You may recall crying to a made-for-TV movie titled Brian’s Song. I can remember burying myself out of view, hidden by the couch on the TV room floor so that mom and dad couldn’t see me “crying my eyes out.” I’m pretty sure they heard the sniffles.
It has been said that Brian’s Song is “the movie that makes grown men cry.” Also, “the first time that kids saw their fathers cry”. I couldn’t see if my dad was crying because I couldn’t see through my own tears.
Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers were rookie running backs with the Chicago Bears in 1965. In the beginning they experienced many endeavors. One was always joking, while the other was shy and quiet. One was blessed with God given talent and the other worked for every yard he gained. One was raised in the deep south, the other in the Midwest. One is black, the other white. They were the first interracial roommates in the NFL.
Their story was told by Sayers in one of the greatest sports books of all time, I Am Third. “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.” The book became the basis for the movie Brian’s Song.
If you didn’t see that, the beautiful, haunting instrumental theme song charted for weeks on the Billboard’s Top 100 in 1972.
My neighbors across the alley back then were like a third set of grandparents, Karl and Eileen Doeltz. Their son, Chuck, lived in the “big city” of Minneapolis. He was a handsome bachelor, gifted pianist, and scratch golfer who worked at Honeywell. I thought of him as the male version of Mary Tyler Moore’s Minneapolis TV character. Chuck, in my opinion, had “made it after all”.
Chuck was in the Big Brother program. With a huge heart, he befriended a ten-year old inner-city boy named John Simpson. John didn’t have a father at home. Chuck and John did many things together through their brotherhood over the years.
One day, Mrs. Doeltz came over to ask if I would be John’s friend and play with him as Chuck was bringing him to Sleepy Eye for a few days. Growing up on a block with no kids I was excited to have a new friend. Especially one from Minneapolis!
From little on, I never saw color. I saw humans. My sports idols were seldom white. My favorite comedian was Flip Wilson. My musical tastes rooted themselves in R & B.
John Simpson was my first black friend. I felt so cool! Our friendship was so cool. We laughed and joked about many things. Even the color of our skin. He introduced me to his favorite group Sly and The Family Stone. I remember him seeing cows for the first time. I tried to soak in everything about my new friend who lived in the big city.
We played a lot of football in the yard. We were the kid versions of Piccolo and Sayers, polar opposites who became friends.
Once I told John that, “I wish I was black.” He was so cool and said that I should be proud of how God made me. Keep in mind we were about 10 years old.
Chuck brought John to Sleepy Eye several times during their Big Brotherhood. One Saturday, I was proud to take John to the matinee movie at the Pix Theater downtown. Back then the lines for many of the kid’s movies wrapped around the block and all the way to the meat market. This was one of those days. The theater was packed. I was behind John as we walked to get to the few remaining seats way down in the front rows. Of course, there were looks but I felt like a celebrity with my new cool friend.
And then it happened. I started to realize that many, what felt like all, were glaring at my buddy. A boy I knew pointed at John and yelled. “Hey, look there’s a n—-!” Then the boy started laughing and so did some others. John turned, stared, and tensed up like a cougar ready to pounce. I grabbed him and told him not to worry about that jerk.
I felt horrible for John. I thought kids from Sleepy Eye, all of us, were cooler than that. I expected “us” to be better. I don’t remember anything about the movie that day as that event ruined it. Imagine how John felt!
You know what? I can’t. It’s not possible for ME to know what HE felt like. The recent events in our world have continued to repeat this nasty cycle by volume and tragedy. I think back to how bad I felt that day, but truly how bad I felt for John. All of this has only magnified in our world. And I thought we were better than that. I expected the “U.S.A.” to be better than that.
My wife Sandy and I met with John years later when I lived in Bloomington. We talked about that event. It was one experience for me. I shudder to think of how many times this happened to him.
Brian’s Song aired on Nov. 30, 1971. After watching it, my eight-year old self took out my 1968 Topps football cards of “Pic” and the “Kansas Comet.” I wanted Piccolo and Sayers to be together again. I framed them and hung them on my bedroom wall. For years they remained there, a reminder of true friendship and brotherhood.
I met John Simpson the next year.
No matter who your Creator is, the Creator made us all.
Gayle Sayers delivered a speech on May 25, 1970, at an awards banquet honoring him as the most courageous player in the NFL. This was days before Brian Piccolo died. Sayers said this: “You flatter me with this award, but I tell you here and now 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, ask God to love him.” Then Gayle walked away from the podium in respectful silence, not a dry eye in the room.
Brian Piccolo and Gayle Sayers were opposites in many ways. Their brotherhood was a perfect example of how opposites can attract.
Reflecting back to 48 years ago, John Simpson did not say, “I wish I was white.” At ten-years old, he knew he was glad the Creator made him who he was. Our friendship is hauntingly beautiful to me, just like Brian’s Song.
I want you to love John Simpson. And when you hit your knees tonight, ask God to help you love him.