The Italian-American Triumvirate: #3 – Family

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We begin our third and final installment of the Italian-American Triumvirate to honor Christopher Columbus and all descendants of Italia during October as we celebrate Italian-American Month.

The third item on the list has been known by many names. In fact, those who remember football in the 1960s may also remember the three pillars being defined quite differently (and creatively). Italian-Americans played a prominent role in this.

On June 16, 1970, Brian Piccolo, starting running back for the Chicago Bears, died. Only seven months earlier, on November 16, 1969, Piccolo scored a touchdown on a one-yard run in the fourth quarter against the Atlanta Falcons. He then surprised his teammates by taking himself out of the game. Having problems breathing, he was immediately examined by doctors when the team returned to Chicago and was diagnosed with cancer.

The sudden death of Piccolo had an enormous impact on his teammate (and travel roommate) Gale Sayers, who penned his autobiography just a few months later. Sayers dedicated a large part of this book, titled I Am Third, to his friend. That portion of the book, in turn, became the TV movie Brian’s Song.

The film aired on Tuesday November 30, 1971 at 8:30pm as the ABC Movie of the Week, sandwiched between The Mod Squad and Marcus Welby, M.D. You may have missed it if you were a Hawaii Five-0 fan, which was broadcast at the same time on CBS.

Brian’s Song, starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams as Piccolo and Sayers, became an instant hit. So popular was the film that ABC, in an unprecedented move, re-released the film in theaters.

Sayers, in his book, explains the expression “I am third” as coming from his college track coach Bill Easton. Easton said it meant “The Lord is first, my friends are second, and I am third.”

Contrast this to Vince Lombardi, who won the first two Superbowls, who famously stated his values as “God, Family, and the Green Bay Packers.” Tragically, Lombardi died of cancer on September 3, 1970, having only been diagnosed with the disease on June 24, 1970, little more than a week after Piccolo passed away.

Of note, both men died surrounded by their family.

Yes. “Family.”

There’s an old Italian proverb: “La famiglia è la patria del cuore.” It means “The family is where the heart is.”

This is the third item in the Italian-American Triumvirate. After God, after Country, comes Family.

Now, here’s where things get a little complicated. Some might argue that family comes ahead of all else. Part of the perception may come from another James Caan movie. The classic film The Godfather contains a scene where patriarch Vito Corleone (Marlon Brando) admonishes his son Sonny (James Caan) for speaking out of turn. He says, “Santino, never let anyone outside the family know what you are thinking.”

So, yeah, he uses the word “family,” but this is really about a negotiating tactic. It’s about “family” as a business or an organization, not as a group of related people. (I know, this can be very confusing because in The Godfather, the family and the business appear to be the same thing.)

The “family” I speak of here refers, yes, to the physical members of the family itself. But it also refers to the traditions of the family, the memories of the family, and the sense of family that extends both well into the distant past, but also far into the future.

It’s about both a respect for your elders – those that came before you – and a sacrifice for your children (and grandchildren). This dual directive guides your life.

You live honorably because you never want to be put in the position of being asked, “What would your grandmother think if she saw you do this?” So, you practice the same rituals as your parents and grandparents. You celebrate the same holidays, you cook the same foods, you go to the same church. All this says, even when they’re not around to hear you, “I respect what you taught me and I owe everything I have for your teaching me.”

On the flipside, actually, among the many things you’re taught, is the imperative to make your children have a better life than you. You therefore do things that you don’t want to do, that might not even be in your best interest – or so it would seem. For, if your family really is your priority, you’ll find you really do want to go to that dance recital or school event to be with your child just because it’s more important to be with your child than anything else. You’ll see that it’s better to not take that high paying out-of-town job because you don’t want to uproot your children and take them away from the larger family.

In fact, the only reason to put your family in the backseat is if either God or your Country calls you. And you can be sure that neither God nor your Country would call you unless it was important to maintaining the sanctity of your family.

Before I leave, I know many of you are asking, “But where does my job, my career, fit within this triumvirate? Are you saying work isn’t important?”

Assuredly not. Work is critical to supporting God, Country, and Family. Personal industry prevents you from being a charity case and taxing the resources of both God and Country. It also puts bread on your Family’s table and, ultimately, provides the investment capital to help give your children something more than you ever got.

There is, however, a Dark Side to work. It can have you ignore God, it can have you sell out your Country, and it can take you away from your Family.

You must therefore be diligent to ensure you integrate your work within the Triumvirate. It cannot require you to do immoral acts. You cannot allow greed to lure you into doing business with the enemies of your nation.

Most importantly, you must tailor your work so you can do the family things you’ve been brought up to do. For me, that means having to structure my business so I could go to the dance recitals and school events.

I’m not saying everyone should do this. I’m just saying that I don’t want to put myself in a position of being asked “What would grandma think?”

Well, at least about most things. But that’s a different story. A story for next week.

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