Brian’s Song and 50 Years of Unanswered Questions

The recent passing of James Caan generated a flood of memories and a story of unanswered questions. But first, I’m going to rant a bit and then contradict myself. I’m good at that. 🙂 And then I’ll explain how something I now rail against had such an impact on me in the past.

I loathe Hollywood. Everything it has become. I happen to think the concept of Hollywood ‘celebrity’ is demeaning to the people we have around us every day who we should celebrate. People who are in a much better place and position to have a positive impact on our daily lives. But these everyday celebrities lack the platform and cache, the street cred, if you will, that society seems to afford the fakes from Hollywood.

It’s simple, really. I think that the opinion of Oscar, my grandfather, should matter more to me than the opinion of some rando who just happens to have a statue named Oscar. Of course, that’s just my opinion. You do you.

Funny aside, both of my grandfathers were named Oscar – yes, really – can you believe I wasn’t named Oscar? 🙂

Now, a Hyde to my Jekyll, if you will.

While I eschew probably 90% of what pretends to be ‘entertainment’ these days (I know, I know, I’m not the target audience, I’m totally ok with that) there was a time that a movie came out that actually mattered to me. When an actor’s portrayal actually impacted me.

That year was 1971. That actor was James Caan.

I was seven (and a half!) and was really starting to embrace everything about sports. If it had a ball, they kept a score, and I could win, I was all over it. Of course, the Big Three (Baseball, Basketball, Football – sorry, soccer people) 🙂 was at the forefront of everything I did. And that included watching anything sports related on TV.

One night, I saw in the TV Guide (remember that??) that there was a football thing on TV. But it wasn’t even Sunday, how could this be. Didn’t matter, it was a football thing, so I was excited to watch it… something called Brian’s Song.

Note: As a young boy, I was a little concerned by the title that it was one of those weird singing and dancing musical shows. Yuck. So I had the remote handy just in case I needed to change it (ha! just seeing if you’re paying attention… there were no remotes back then) 🙂

You might consider me (hell, I might consider me) hypocritical to loathe everything Hollywood, but think Brian’s Song was one of the most impactful pieces of content I have ever consumed. So be it. I’m just going to use my tried and tested saying (just ask my kids how often it’s used…) “it was different back then” and leave it at that.

But Brian’s Song… Wow. I cried for hours after the show was over. I woke up crying the next morning. I was inconsolable. It was the very first time I had been affected by something like this. There was so much I didn’t understand.

Why did people care that one guy was white and the other guy was black? That shouldn’t matter. That didn’t seem right that it was an issue.

Why did Sayers get hurt so bad? That didn’t seem fair. He didn’t deserve that.

Why did Pic have to die? Why? WHY?

My parents didn’t have answers. In their defense, they weren’t sports people, unless, of course, I was playing. So they weren’t in tune with what had happened to these NFL guys the previous year. They also didn’t have much for answers about the whole black/white thing, except to say that it shouldn’t matter and, sadly, it didn’t make sense.

And, while I have a faint recollection of the attempt to explain Pic’s death, I was having none of it. It was beyond anything 7-year-old me could comprehend, especially after watching a young, strong, professional athlete – someone who I thought I could emulate someday – die for no apparent reason. I was devastated.

Fifty years later, so much still doesn’t make sense to me. Growing older didn’t provide me the answers, just more questions. We as a society obviously still haven’t figured some things out – at least not the way Sayers and Pic figured it out.

And the death question that I failed to understand as a 7-year-old? It isn’t any less daunting, or more understandable, as an adult. And trust me, it’s a question I dwell on frequently now. As someone who faces a terminal diagnosis, I often ask Why? WHY? So much still doesn’t make sense.

But then I remember that I’m 58. Picollo was 26. Talk about unfair. Twenty-six. I’ve lived two-plus of his lifetimes. In fact, I’ve enjoyed 5x – five times – the life as an adult than he had. Now I feel selfish. I tell myself, have some perspective, man. In the big scheme of things, I’ve had it good. I’ll say it until my last breath, I’ve been incredibly blessed.

But Pic’s story – Brian’s Song – does, once again, remind me that none of us are guaranteed tomorrow. I’ll keep hammering it because it’s so important to live our todays.

Do I want more todays? More tomorrows? Of course. Look, I know ALS is incurable. I realize it is terminal. I understand the odds. That’s not going to prevent me from drawing up that ‘Hail Mary’ pass. Should it fall incomplete, I will still celebrate having been in the game – knowing I was blessed to have played more downs than many others were able to play. And when the game is finally over, I just want to know that I played my heart out and left it all on the field.

– RIP, James Caan, 7/7/2022

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