Brian Piccolo, Bears RB 1965-1969
"I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him.
When you hit your knees to pray tonight, please ask God to love him, too."
Bears running back Gale Sayers uttered these famous words in May 1970, as he
accepted the NFL's Most Courageous Player award. Sayers told the crowd they had
selected the wrong person for the honor, and would accept it only on Piccolo's
behalf. I love Brian Piccolo, too, and a Bears History website could not exist
without a tribute to this man.
Brian Piccolo typified the legendary Chicago Bear. He was too
small and slow to play professional football. What he lacked in size and speed,
he made up for in grit and determination. Sadly, Piccolo left this world on
June 16, 1970 at the age of 26 after an eight month battle with cancer.
Although I was born eleven months after Piccolo died, I've been an admirer of
his all my life.
Louis Brian Piccolo was born in 1943 in Pittsfield, MA, but
spent most of his years growing up in the Fort Lauderdale, FL area. After
lettering in several sports in High School, he attended college at Wake Forest
University. During his senior season in 1964, Piccolo led the nation in
Despite his fabulous final year in college, "Pic" was not
drafted, despite it lasting 20 rounds with 14 teams. Two hundred and eighty
picks, and the leading rusher in the nation seemed not to be wanted by the NFL.
Bears owner and coach George Halas stepped in and signed Piccolo as a free
agent. Halas actually called a press conference to announce the signing, which
was unprecedented for a free agent that did not get drafted. Deemed too small
and too slow for the NFL, Brian spent 1965 on the Bears practice squad, while
that year's number four pick Sayers became the NFL's rookie of the year.
In 1966, Piccolo rushed 3 times for 12 yards and was active
for all 14 games. In 1967, he rushed for 317 yards and caught passes for 103.
Each training camp it seemed he was on the bubble to make the roster, but his
determination would not let him fail. His first big chance came in 1968. In
game nine of that season, versus San Francisco at Wrigley Field, the "Kansas
Comet" suffered a massive knee injury at the hands of 49er Kermit Alexander.
Sayers was lost for the season, and "Pic" stepped right in. In the final five
games of that year, Piccolo gained 450 yards on the ground and 281 via pass
receptions. He also scored his first two NFL touchdowns.
Piccolo's good fortune came in the worst possible way he could
imagine. Prior to the 1967 season, Bears executive Ed McCaskey suggested that
Sayers and Piccolo become the NFL's first interracial roommates. Both players
jumped at the opportunity and became close friends. Fiercely competitive,
Piccolo was eager to prove the NFL was wrong for not drafting him back in '65,
and gaining a starting opportunity due to Sayers' injury was the last way he
would have wanted it to happen.
During the '68 offseason, Sayers became the first NFL player
to successfully return to football after such a massive knee injury. Piccolo
assisted Sayers both mentally and physically through his rehab, which was
documented in the 1971 film "Brian's Song," as well as the 2001 remake. Sayers
was determined to rush for 1,000 yards again after his injury, which he
By the time Piccolo had his real chance to shine, it was too
late. He entered 1969's training camp healthy and eager to contribute to the
team (a full physical and chest x-ray was performed that July and was normal).
With Sayers having returned to the lineup, Piccolo was back to his familiar
second-string halfback position, but coaches had him practicing at fullback
with the intention of playing him there at some point. Starting fullback Ronnie
Bull was injured in game six at Los Angeles, so Pic started game seven at
Minnesota next to Sayers. Problem was, Brian wasn't feeling well.
Piccolo had been battling a cough that wouldn't go away, and
now became winded easily. On November 16th at Atlanta, Piccolo took himself out
of the game because he couldn't breathe. Coach Jim Dooley knew immediately that
something was wrong with the 26-year old running back, as Piccolo had never
taken himself out of a game. The following Tuesday, Brian visited Illinois
Masonic Hospital to see the team physician, Dr. L.L. Braun. Because of the
cough, Piccolo figured they would want to see a chest x-ray, so he headed up to
have it taken, and brought the film to the waiting area himself. As soon as he
looked at the film, he noticed shadows that were not there just four months
After several days of tests and a biopsy at Illinois Masonic,
doctors first informed his wife, Joy, then Brian, of the diagnosis. Piccolo was
diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma as mediastinal teratoma (embryonal cell
carcinoma being the type of cancer, found as a large tumor in his chest
cavity.) Piccolo's disease was extremely rare. At diagnosis, it was estimated
that there had only been 400 operations of his type performed in the world up
to that time. The shocked football player was told that the disease has its
roots as the human embryo is developing. In rare occasions, cells are left over
in either the testes or chest cavity during development, and uncontrolled
growth of these cells is triggered. In the four months since Piccolo's clear
chest x-ray, a tumor the size of a grapefruit had developed.
It was decided that surgery would be performed at the Memorial
Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York the following week. Before the Bears
played the Baltimore Colts on November 23rd, Gale Sayers broke the news to the
team, and they dedicated the game to Piccolo. In typical '69 Bears fashion,
they lost 24-21. Piccolo chided his teammates as they visited him in Masonic
after the game. "Leave it to them", he thought, "to dedicate the game to him
On November 28, 1969, Piccolo underwent a 4 and 1/2 hour
operation to remove the tumor from his chest. Although during surgery doctors
were concerned to find a lymph node that tested positive for cancer, they were
optimistic that the operation was a success. Piccolo was discharged, given a
regimen of chemotherapy, and would return to Sloan-Kettering in June 1970 for
an evaluation on his future in football.
Piccolo intended to return to football in 1970, and felt that
there was no way that he would let even an enemy like cancer beat him. He began
working out again in January of 1970, and started anew his usual round of
speaking engagements for a variety of organizations. Often he would bring to
these speeches his friend Morey Coletta, who happened to be an undertaker.
Piccolo loved to warm up the crowds by telling people that while athletes and
movie stars traveled with their agents and attorneys, he brought his personal
In February, Piccolo was invited to a celebrity golf
tournament in Phoenix, where he played for three days with Chicago Cub Ernie
Banks. After the second day, he discovered a lemon-sized lump on his chest. As
soon as he returned to Chicago, he had it checked out by a doctor friend, who
stated it could be a pulled muscle. Another chest x-ray revealed spots within
the left lung in addition to the pectoral mass. While he knew he had to
immediately fly back to New York for diagnosis of this re-occurrence, he still
took the time to speak to some children with scoliosis. He related to them the
importance of positive attitude to overcome disease, and children streamed out
of the room full of encouragement.
The rapid recurrence and spread of his cancer was confirmed in
New York, and Brian underwent a month of intensive chemotherapy there. The
disease didn't respond, and on March 24th, he underwent a mastectomy and the
removal of lymph nodes in his left chest. As if a once-strong athlete having to
endure the removal of his breast wasn't enough, just weeks later, doctors
informed him that they felt the need to remove his left lung entirely. Although
always optimistic around Piccolo, the cancer specialists confided to Joy,
McCaskey, Sayers and others that there was a limited chance to save Brian's
life. That would be if they could remove the lung, implant the remaining tumor
with radioactive seeds, and administer radiation therapy. With this
announcement to Piccolo came his first public acknowledgement that he could
never play football again. This would be the hardest realization for Brian-as
he would never accept that cancer would ultimately defeat him.
On April 9th, his left lung was removed, and residual tumors
were implanted with radioactive iodine seeds. After nearly a month of radiation
therapy, Piccolo's body was battered. He was allowed to return to his home in
Chicago on May 23rd, and he and his wife soaked up the beautiful spring
weather. On May 31st, they left to spend a week in Atlanta with Joy's parents
and their three daughters, Lori, Traci, and Kristi. By June 4th, Piccolo was
back in the hospital in New York. Doctors told Joy the cancer had spread this
time to his liver, and not to expect Brian to live too much longer.
According to Jeannie Morris, author of Brian's biography Brian
Piccolo, A Short Season , Piccolo fought kicking and screaming to the
very end. But he never lost his sense of humor, even at the most dire time of
his life. When Ed McCaskey finally broke into tears at his bedside, Brian said
"don't worry Big Ed, I'm not afraid of anything. Only (Packer linebacker Ray)
Brian Piccolo finally succumbed to his disease on June 16,
1970 at the age of 26, leaving his wife and three daughters he loved and cared
for dearly. Chicago mourned, and a year later he became a legend. The
television movie Brian's Song was released in 1971, starring many of his
teammates, James Caan, Billy Dee Williams, and others. The movie was remade in
2001, exposing a new generation to Piccolo's remarkable story of courage,
humanity, and faith.
Embryonal cell carcinoma was almost 100% fatal at the time of
his diagnosis. After Piccolo's death, the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund
was established, and millions of dollars have been donated to the cause of
finding a cure to various forms of the disease. Thanks in part to funds raised
in Piccolo's name, with early detection and treatment, this disease is now
almost completely curable.
I first read Brian Piccolo, A Short Season, and Gale
Sayers' autobiography I am Third when I was nine years old, and saw
Brian's Song for the first time at 10. I read Piccolo's book again this Fall,
after watching the ESPN Sports Century special on his life. The special
featured comments from his three grown daughters. Just a few days after
watching the special, I was walking out of Soldier Field with an excited throng
following the Bears' overtime win against Cleveland. I spotted an attractive
young woman wearing a Piccolo 41 jersey, and was almost positive it was his
daughter Kristi. I wanted so much to tell her the respect I have for her
father, and how I sobbed watching the special, but it's not my style to
encroach on anyone's privacy like that.
I mention in the headline that Brian Piccolo is one of my
"heroes". From my childhood to the present day, I have never taken a sport
figure as a hero based on the fact that they're successful at a game. I will
not raise my young son to worship another human being, especially a sports
figure or celebrity. L. Brian Piccolo's story trancends this. The millions of
people that have read his story know that he taught us how to live, love, care
for his fellow man and carry out the ultimate display of courage in the face of
the demise every human being will someday face. To me, this man is a hero to us
Should anyone from Piccolo's family read this, please know my
respect for Brian Piccolo. If only I can live my life with 10% of his strength,
courage, faith, and goodwill to man, I'm sure I'll get the chance to meet him
on "the other side".
In Brian's Words