Now I think I know
What you tried to say to me
And how you suffered for your sanity
And how you tried to set them free
They would not listen; they're not listening still --
Perhaps they never will...
-- Don McLean, "Vincent / Starry, starry night"
Reflecting on the speech from the US Military Academy at West Point the president is scheduled to make this evening, I began the morning with a Mexican coffee. (2 parts superheated black coffee, 1 part each tequila and Kahlua, topped with a very generous helping of whipped cream.) It wasn't that I needed it, to get going. I'm not much of a drinker: half a glass of wine or half a can of beer -- "or," never and -- are pretty much my limits. No, this morning I just didn't give a damn.
In January I'll turn 64. I've concluded a few things about myself, especially over the past few years. I can be a pretty gruff old bird. It's within me to be the coldest of cold steel that no one would want to encounter. Last year, a group of men gathered in Afghanistan. They buried a 13-year-old girl to her neck, then stoned her to death . . . because, as she'd been the victim of rape, their religion supposedly demanded it! I know as a truth that this grizzled Infantry sergeant would have no difficulty whatsoever, lining each of them on their knees, then one at a time quite deliberately blowing their brains out. Easy. No qualms at all. They just do not belong on this earth while I'm alive. But on the other hand, I cannot watch Brian's Song -- the 1971 made-for-TV movie starring James Caan as the very white Brian Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as the very black Gale Sayers, both of the Chicago Bears -- without rivulets of tears streaming down both cheeks. For all who haven't seen it -- do.
Piccolo, graduated from Catholic Central High in Ft. Lauderdale, went on via a football scholarship to Wake Forest, where in 1964, after leading the country in rushing and scoring, was named the ACC Player of the Year. Despite his stellar achievements, because of his size, small to NFL standards, he went undrafted, and only made the Bears' taxi squad (practice but unable to suit up for regular games) as walk-on tryout.
Sayers was raised in Omaha, and while at Omaha Central High set a state long-jump record of 24 feet, 11 and inches. He then went on to an All-American career at the University of Kansas, crowning those achievements by being drafted by both the Bears and the Kansas City Chiefs NFL teams. Beginning with his rookie season with the Bears, Sayers set one NFL record after another.
There was absolutely nothing about Piccolo's or Sayers' backgrounds that could ever have led any objective observer to suppose anything but enmity might dominate their relationship. Both were trying for the same running back position on the same pro team. George Halas, the Bears' owner and head coach, had that season instituted a policy wherein same position players would room together regardless of race. This at a time in US history when whites just did not fraternize, let alone room, with blacks. It is both significant and essential to bear in mind that the high school and college careers of the two occurred prior to passage of Lyndon Johnson's (Kennedy's) Civil and Voting Rights Acts.
As discordant as some yet today regard racial relations, in the mid-60s there were social lines and rules of conduct that one just did not cross. To add to the tension, the white player, Piccolo, from the first, was forced to take a back seat to the black Sayers.
Piccolo's professional record, unlike that of his team- and roommate Sayers, was anything but stunning. Although on the roster from 1965 through 1969, it wasn't until 1967 that he earned an actual playing spot on other than the taxi squad and special teams. In 1967, however, he became backup to all-Pro Sayers, and in 1969 eared a starting position as fullback. During the ninth game of the 1969 season, however Piccolo removed himself from the game, complaining of severe difficulty breathing. When the team returned to Chicago, he was examined, then diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma -- cancer. In June the following year, Brian Piccolo lost his battle with the disease.
Brian's Song is not a story about football, or any other sport. Rather, it is a story of a racial relationship that is of genuine agape love. The sum of Piccolo's and Sayers' humanness far, far exceeded the diminutive fraction of their differences that, in the beginning and the end, did not matter. It speaks to what each of us can become and thereafter be: better human beings, tolerant and loving . . . despite every superficial predisposed inclination to be otherwise.
And when I suggest better, I also mean better informed; skeptical of not only whatever anyone else has told us, lectured us repeatedly on, schooled us in, and indoctrinated us to, but skeptical as well of our own preconceptions and biases and knee-jerk Pavlovian conclusions. We can teach and learn from each other and the past. We can see folly . . . before it blossoms, because we've seen it before.
As sad as was and is the death of Brian Piccolo, what moves me to tears is the sheer beauty of the proposition, realized by the two protagonists, that indeed we can be better. And that all that is necessary is that we have the will and the courage to make it happen.
But today, for another reason, I truly want to cry.