Shirat Brian (Brian’s Song)

By Rabbi James Gordon


In 2018, the Chicago sports team that outperformed all other Second City teams was – Da Bears.  

While fans have a tendency to remember winning teams, like the 1985 Super Bowl Shufflin’ Bears, on rare occasion, we also fondly recall losing teams.  The Chicago Bears squads of 1965-1969 posted a combined record of 29 (Wins) – 38 (Losses) – 3 (Ties). In spite of their underwhelming record, these Bear teams are remembered by many (both sports fans and others) as ones that taught important, timeless life lessons.  The players who were largely responsible for these inspirational memories were the late Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers.

I hope that you find the following excerpt from my new book PRAY BALL 2!! Spiritual Insights Into Sportsmanship to be meaningful.

Brother vs. Brother/Sister vs. Sister:  Acts of Sportsmanship towards Teammates

Competition for Playing Time:  Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo

Because there are a limited number of spots on team rosters at all levels of competition, players must compete against one another just to make the squad.  Once on the team, teammates must compete for playing time. Although such competitions can, and at times indeed do, result in bad feelings, sometimes they help bring teammates closer.  

For many, the first word that comes to mind when remembering Brian Piccolo is “courage”.  After all, in his short life of only 26 years, Brian exhibited indomitable courage in refusing to allow cancer to define him.  In spite of his battle against the disease to which he eventually succumbed, Piccolo was able to raise a young family, carve a solid NFL career, and leave a lasting, loving legacy.  

In Brian’s memory, after every season, the Chicago Bears, who retired Piccolo’s #41 jersey, present a veteran and rookie with the Brian Piccolo Award.  In addition to exhibiting courage, the recipients must show dedication, loyalty, teamwork, and a sense of humor as did the late running back.

Brian also established himself as a role model for an important manifestation of sportsmanship: generosity and decency when competing against his teammates. Like all players, he competed for a place on the team’s roster and then for playing time.  Unlike most players, Piccolo’s main opponent for playing time was a future Hall of Famer – – Gale Sayers.

Following the 1964 NCAA football season, Gale Sayers, a phenomenal running back out of the University of Kansas, was selected in the first round of the NFL draft by the Chicago Bears.  Known as “The Kansas Comet,” Sayers did not lead the NCAA in yards rushed that season. Actually, this feat was accomplished by a far less heralded player from Wake Forest University named Brian Piccolo.  

NFL draft day came and went for Piccolo without his receiving a call from a team.  Determined to sign as an undrafted free agent, Piccolo caught the eye of several NFL scouts and coaches, including NFL founding father and Chicago Bears owner and coach George Halas.  In the final days of 1964, Brian signed a contract with the Bears. Injured in pre-season, Piccolo was placed on the Bears’ taxi squad.

Realizing that the best way to suit up with the team the following season would be to try to play alongside Sayers as a fullback – as opposed to competing against him for the starting halfback position – Piccolo’s plans were put on hold as Bears running back Jon Arnett, who had earlier announced his retirement, changed his mind and “unretired”.  Now the best opportunity for Brian to be a “Monster of the Midway” was as a member of the Bears special teams.

During the 1967 season and the first eight games of 1968, Brian complemented Gale Sayers by substituting for him when he needed a breather, and, at times, playing alongside him.  But during 1968’s ninth game, Sayers went down with a serious knee injury. The “next man up” was Piccolo, who stepped in and starred as the team’s starting halfback.

Back then, with knee surgery and physical therapy far less advanced than it is today, there was a good chance that Sayers would not be able to return at close to the same level of play that he possessed before his injury.  Instead of taking advantage of this reality, which would enhance his opportunity of playing more and perhaps even lead to starting as halfback in 1969, Piccolo emerged as Sayers’ number one fan and aide in ensuring his return to top form.  A team player, Piccolo worked with and challenged Sayers during his lengthy and most challenging rehab. The next season, Sayers returned at a high level, rushing for more than 1,000 yards, though his knee would never be the same.

Sayers, the superstar African-American halfback from Kansas University known for his blazing speed and deft running ability, and Piccolo – the white upstart, a running back from Wake Forest with only average speed, also made news off the field as they became the first interracial roommates in NFL history.   

Sadly, in the fall of 1969, Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer. While the aggressive, state-of-the-art medical treatment that Brian received was accompanied by an outpouring of love from his family, friends, and fans, one of his biggest cheerleaders and supporters turned out to be his teammate, Gale Sayers.   

In the end, instead of letting competition lead them to become adversaries, Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers chose to help each other both on and off the field.  This special bond of friendship, competition, and sportsmanship is the foundation—and indeed, was even glorified—in the 1971 movie (and 2001 remake), Brian’s Song.

Tragically, despite his immense courage and all of the love and support he received, Brian Piccolo succumbed to cancer on June 16, 1970.  His legacy continues through the labors of his widow Joy, three daughters Lori, Traci, and Kristi, numerous grandchildren and other loving family members, friends, and fans in the work of the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund.

Competition for Playing Time: A Spiritual Insight

Hillel vs. Shammai

Two of the greatest scholars in Jewish history, Hillel and Shammai, lived around the turn of the millennium.  The last of the Zugot (Pairs [of Rabbinic scholars who led the Jewish people living in Israel]) and the first of the Tannaim (the Sages who contributed to the Mishna), these two venerable sages shared duties in administering the Sanhedrin (the highest Jewish court of law).  Hillel served as the Nasi (president), while Shammai was the Av Bet Din (literally, “the father of the Jewish Court”; i.e., second in command).

These two esteemed scholars and the students of their y’shivot (academies) Beit Hillel (the House/School of Hillel) and Beit Shammai (the House/School of Shammai) agreed in, perhaps, 99.9 % of matters regarding Jewish law.  On rare occasion, however, they disagreed on finer details. Even though their disputes may have resembled competitions, the Talmud (Pirkei Avot 5:20) considered them to be constructive (i.e., לְֹשֵם שָׁמַיִם/L’Shem Shamayim [for the sake of Heaven]).  After all, the main purpose of these disagreements was not to satisfy the egos of the disputants, but rather to clarify the law so that more Jews could observe the tradition in a more precise manner.  In that way, their disputes were similar to teammates sharing the same goal.

With rare exception, in a “competition” (i.e. machaloket [dispute/disagreement]) between Hillel and Shammai, the law went in accordance with Beit Hillel.  As explained in the Talmud (Eruvin 13b):

יָצְאָה בַּת קוֹל וְאָמְרָה אֵלּוּ וְאֵלּוּ דִּבְרֵי אֱלֹקִים חַיִּים הֵן וַהֲלָכָה כְּב”ה

Yahtz’a Bat Kol v’am’ra: ehlu v’ehlu Divrei Elokim Chayim hehn v’Halakha k’Veit Hillel

A Bat Kol [Divine Voice] came forth and said: “these and those [Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai’s opinions] are both the words of the Living G-d, but the law [when there is a difference in opinion] goes according to Beit Hillel.

Having been raised in abject poverty (see Yoma 35b), Hillel was an extraordinarily patient man who could empathize, oftentimes, with the underdog.

One classic machaloket between the students of these two prodigious Sages is found in Ketubot 16b-17a regarding whether a person can bend the truth in order to save someone from embarrassment and tell an unattractive bride on her wedding day that she is beautiful.  While Beit Shammai prohibited such behavior, Beit Hillel allowed it.

When competitors’ primary skills are essentially equivalent, we then use additional criteria as the tiebreaker.  In sports, it may be the person to whom teammates respond better. In the case of Jewish leadership, we learn from Hillel that being gentler and more patient are extremely important traits to inspire others to observe Jewish tradition.

While teammates have the same goal of putting the best interests of the team before their own personal accomplishments, inevitably, a competition exists.  When competing for a place on the roster, playing time, or a record, it should be done in a fair and friendly way in the same manner as done by Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo.  These are important expressions of sportsmanship.
Rabbis (and other Torah teachers) are also “teammates” in that they all have the same common goal of transmitting Torah to others.  Accordingly, when they compete, it should be strictly L’Shem Shamayim – – for the sake of Heaven (Pirkei Avot 5:20).  The “competing” students of Torah should be sure to express only great Derekh Eretz v’Khavod to one another. We should take a lesson from the Tannaim Hillel and Shammai and their students who engaged in machalokot (disputes/disagreements) only in order to elucidate the Halakha in select situations for the benefit of all Jews.