Caan and Williams respectively play Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers, two star running backs in college (Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring during his senior year) who in 1965 are both rookies with the Bears and thus competing for the same starting job. Piccolo is a loud, goofy extrovert while Sayers is very soft-spoken and reserved, but in spite of getting on each other's nerves with a few hazing pranks they are asked to room together due to their shared position, in the process becoming the first white and black players in team history to share a room.
They end up becoming great friends, although Sayers is the star and Piccolo rarely plays. But after Sayers injures his leg, Piccolo is given the starter role and puts up great numbers, while constantly visiting his injured friend to push Sayers through rehab — Piccolo knowing he himself will become a better player if he has to compete with a healthy, fully-recovered Sayers. With a dilemma over whom to play, coach George Halas decides to switch Piccolo to fullback — even though he's undersized for the position — and keep the speedier Sayers at halfback, so that they can both start.
The new arrangement works well for a season, but then Piccolo's weight starts dropping and his 40-yard dash time slows down. The coach sticks with him as the starter for a little while longer, but then his performance starts to suffer on the field, he wheezes on the sidelines complaining of allergies, and he is benched. Halas wonders whether Piccolo has an injury he isn't revealing or if family troubles are affecting his mentality and emotions. Then it turns out that he actually has a tumor in his right lung, has to have surgery, and will probably never play football again. The two friends' previous roles are reversed as Sayers sticks with his friend through the rehab, but then it is discovered that the tumors are spreading and a second operation will be required....
Tropes present in this work include:
- Adaptation Title Change/The Film of the Book: The story was taken from Gale Sayers' autobiography I Am Third.
- Based on a True Story: The "dramatization" variant. A few changes are made, mostly to fit the story into the allotted time and keep Halas as a main character (after he actually stepped down as head coach), but it follows real life fairly closely and even includes some actual game footage.
- For example: Sayers wasn't with Piccolo when he died, his wife, Joy, was.
- The original film was made just six months after Piccolo's death.
- Chekhov's Gun: Averted. Early in the film, Sayers comes upon Piccolo practicing his footwork for a halfback option since he knows it's in the playbook and he wants to have a way to stand out. Sayers suggests Piccolo run to his left instead of his right, because the defense would less expect a right-handed man to throw while running left. But neither player is ever later shown running the halfback option or throwing a pass during a game, or even during practice for that matter.
- Chick Flick: It's a chick flick FOR MEN!
- Disneyfication: Fortunately averted with the 2001 remake. However, it does bend to political correctness which is not quite in keeping with the period this story is set.
- Incurable Cough of Death: Brian Piccolo hacking and wheezing on the sidline complaining of hay fever and allergies. A fairly realistic example of this trope since he's actually got a tumor in his lung.
- Manic Pixie Dream Guy: Piccolo is a platonic (and male) version for Sayers, getting the shy football player out of his shell and helping him through his issues.
- Manly Tears: One of the biggest causes of it ever.
- Novelization: Subverted - rather than turn it into a novel, William Blinn's Emmy-winning teleplay was published in book form.
- N-Word Privileges: This movie has an example of "honorary pass" privileges being (temporarily) extended to a out-group member. During a workout/physical therapy session for Sayers, Piccolo calls him a nigger, hoping to motivate Sayers by making him angry enough to forget his despondency over his lengthy and painful rehab process. As soon as the word comes out, Sayers just stares at him, shocked, for a few seconds before bursting out laughing and pointing out that he realizes what Piccolo was trying to do.
- Rated M for Manly: Not in the typical way, but yes.
- Rousing Speech: Sayers has two, first the lockeroom one where he announces to the rest of the team that Brian has cancer, and again at the awards banquet. The film even goes out of its way to portray Sayers as shy and uncomfortable with public speaking to add extra weight.
- Take a Third Option: Halas switching Piccolo to fullback when he can't decide who should start.
- The Remake: By Disney in 2001.