SUBJECTS — Sports/Football; U.S./1945 – 1991 & Diversity/African-American;

SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Friendship; Grieving; Sportsmanship;


AGE: 10+; MPAA Rating — G;

Drama; 1972; 74 minutes; Color. Available from

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide:

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This is the true story of the friendship between professional football players Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo, and of Piccolo’s death from lung cancer at age 26. Piccolo and Sayers were the first interracial roommates on the Chicago Bears. They competed against each other for the same position on the team. None of this stood in the way of their friendship. The film is based on the book, I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Al Silverman.


Selected Awards: 1972 Golden Globe Awards: Best Film Made for Television; 1972; Directors Guild of America: Outstanding Directorial Achievement (Kulik).

Featured Actors: James Caan, Billy Dee Williams, Jack Warden, Shelley Fabares, Judy Pace.

Director: Buzz Kulik.


Brian’s Song illuminates the nature of friendship between men, interracial friendships, courage in the face of injury and disease, and sportsmanship. It thus serves to build character.

Students will learn excellent lessons about the above-described topics and will exercise research and writing skills using a subject matter that provides easy access to their full attention.


Minor. Some children may be disturbed by Piccolo’s death at the age of 26. Racial epithets such as “nigger” are used in a joking and friendly way.


Brian’s Song is not a difficult movie for children to understand, and they are usually clear about the powerful friendship expressed between Sayers and Piccolo. You may want to put the friendship in a historical context or suggest that such friendships were rare and required courage prior to the Civil Rights Movement.

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1. What is the real reason that Piccolo helped Sayers recover from his knee injury?

Suggested Response:

Piccolo wasn’t happy about being promoted to the position of starting halfback “for all the wrong reasons.” He helped Sayers recover from the knee injury out of friendship and to prove that he wasn’t going to take advantage of another man’s adversity. It wasn’t in his definition of friendship to benefit from a friend’s injury. It wasn’t in his definition of sportsmanship to compete against an injured opponent.


2. Should Sayers have allowed Piccolo to be his friend after Piccolo had lied to him about the state of the coach’s hearing?

Suggested Response:

Everyone deserves a second chance. It’s not a good idea to hold grudges.



3. What is one of the major ways that Sayers dealt with his grief over the death of Piccolo? You saw a movie about it. Is this a good way to grieve the death of a good friend?

Suggested Response:

Sayers wrote a book about Piccolo and their friendship. In the book, entitled I am Third, Sayers pays homage to his friend. The book was, in a sense, his song about Brian Piccolo. That’s how the movie got its name. Creating something good or beautiful is an excellent way to deal with the death of a loved one.



4. For these men, football was a job. Does the concept of sportsmanship have any application when people are playing a game for their livelihood?

Suggested Response:

Yes. The job is playing a sport and sportsmanship is part of sports. It’s what makes sports fun and interesting.


Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


(Treat others with respect; follow the Golden Rule; Be tolerant of differences; Use good manners, not bad language; Be considerate of the feelings of others; Don’t threaten, hit or hurt anyone; Deal peacefully with anger, insults, and disagreements)

1. What was admirable about the character of Piccolo as shown in the film?

Suggested Response:

Piccolo was very determined and he worked very hard (responsibility). He was loyal to the team and his friendship (trustworthiness). When Sayers was sidelined with a knee injury, and Piccolo was promoted to Sayers’ position as starting halfback, Piccolo didn’t take advantage of Sayers’ adversity. To the contrary, Piccolo helped Sayers make a full recovery from his knee injury and get his old job back (fairness). One of the major components of Piccolo’s character was that he respected his friend despite the prevailing climate of racism in America at that time. Finally, Piccolo showed that he cared by his constant friendship and by being helpful when Sayers was injured.


(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)

2. Sometimes it is difficult to show that you care for people who are very ill. Why is that? How do you overcome it?

Suggested Response:

Many people are scared of serious illnesses because it reminds them that they too are mortal and could become seriously ill. The way to deal with this is to understand the basis for your feelings and to focus on the humanity of the person who is ill. People who are seriously ill are in special need of love and affection. If you love them or are their friend, this is the time to express that love and take care of them.


3. How did Piccolo and Sayers honor this Pillar of Character?

Suggested Response:

They truly cared for each other and when one was hurt, the other would help take care of his friend.


Any of the discussion questions can serve as a writing prompt. Additional assignments include:

1. There are many who believe that athletes today are more interested in high salaries than in the sport and that sportsmanship is secondary to income. Write an opinion essay on your beliefs in regards to these issues. You may want to research commentaries by sports writers and social critics to back up the points you make.

2. Write an informative essay on the health issues faced by professional athletes. Piccolo’s story is uncommon in sports, but many diseases and injuries are issues the athletes must address over their careers. Research, for example, the current studies that show the predominance of brain injuries in football players and the many health issues professional athletes face after they retire. Conclude your essay with a suggestion about what can be done to better protect athletes in the future.

3. Write a personal reflection on an important friendship in your life that was somehow sundered, either by changing schools, having a friend move away or simply by drifting apart over time. Make the nature of the friendship clear. You may want to give examples of the kinds of activities in which you and your friend engaged and then explain how you felt and what you did about the loss of the friend. Use five ways to show meaning: describe the action, include dialogue, reveal thoughts of the characters, use descriptive language, and compare one thing to another.

See Activities for Use With any Film that is a Work of Fiction and Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories, and Plays. The month of January, during the buildup to the Super Bowl, is an excellent time to have students read the teleplay or the book. Note that certain portions of the book may not be suitable for classroom use.



Anchor Standard #7 for Reading (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). (The three Anchor Standards read: “Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media, including visually and quantitatively as well as in words.”) CCSS pp. 35 & 60. See also Anchor Standard # 2 for ELA Speaking and Listening, CCSS pg. 48.


Anchor Standards #s 1, 2, 7 and 8 for Reading and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 35 & 60.


Anchor Standards #s 1 – 5 and 7- 10 for Writing and related standards (for both ELA classes and for History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Classes). CCSS pp. 41 & 63.

Speaking and Listening:

Anchor Standards #s 1 – 3 (for ELA classes). CCSS pg. 48.

Not all assignments reach all Anchor Standards. Teachers are encouraged to review the specific standards to make sure that over the term all standards are met.


I Am Third by Gale Sayers and Al Silverman. A middle school level English teacher has reported good results reading the teleplay of the film in class and suggesting to students that they check out the book and read it. He reports that certain parts of the book may not be suited to classroom use. We have not read the book.



Thank you to Lori Hille, a teacher at East Middle School, Downey, California, for suggestions incorporated into this Learning Guide. Last updated August 3, 2010.

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Click on the link for a discussion of Segregation and Its Corrosive Effects in the Learning Guide to “A Force More Powerful

RANDALL KENNEDY, Professor, Harvard Law School on the two alternative traditions relating to racism in America:

“I say that the best way to address this issue is to address it forthrightly, and straightforwardly, and embrace the complicated history and the complicated presence of America. On the one hand, that’s right, slavery, and segregation, and racism, and white supremacy is deeply entrenched in America. At the same time, there has been a tremendous alternative tradition, a tradition against slavery, a tradition against segregation, a tradition against racism.

I mean, after all in the past 25 years, the United States of America has seen an African-American presence. As we speak, there is an African-American vice president. As we speak, there’s an African- American who is in charge of the Department of Defense. So we have a complicated situation. And I think the best way of addressing our race question is to just be straightforward, and be clear, and embrace the tensions, the contradictions, the complexities of race in American life. I think we need actually a new vocabulary.

So many of the terms we use, we use these terms over and over, starting with racism, structural racism, critical race theory. These words actually have been weaponized. They are vehicles for propaganda. I think we would be better off if we were more concrete, we talked about real problems, and we actually used a language that got us away from these overused terms that actually don’t mean that much.   From Fahreed Zakaria, Global Public Square, CNN, December 26, 2021

Give your students new perspectives on race relations, on the history of the American Revolution, and on the contribution of the Founding Fathers to the cause of representative democracy. Check out TWM’s Guide: TWO CONTRASTING TRADITIONS RELATING TO RACISM IN AMERICA and a Tragic Irony of the American Revolution: the Sacrifice of Freedom for the African-American Slaves on the Altar of Representative Democracy.

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