Thursday, June 16, 2016

Remembering Brian Piccolo

By Chris Willis, NFL Films

Brian Piccolo, Bears Running Back
Forty-six years ago today on June 16, 1970, Bears running back Brian Piccolo passed away of cancer at the very young age of 26. He left behind a wife, Joy, and three young daughters, Lori, Traci and Kristi. His legacy and fighting spirit is still remembered nearly fifty years after his death.

Most people and football fans know the name, Brian Piccolo, mostly that he died young and was featured in the 1971 made-for-TV movie Brian's Song starring James Cahn as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Gale Sayers. But we can learn more about the man through two published works.  

NFL Player

After a record-breaking career at Wake Forest, Piccolo went undrafted in the 1965 NFL Draft. George Halas signed him to the Chicago Bears as a free agent. In his five year NFL career Piccolo played in 51 games. His stats don't appear in many Bears record columns.

Rushing Yards-  927 yards, 258 carries (3.6 yds. per carry)
Rushing Touchdowns-  4
Receptions- 58
Receiving Yards- 537 (9.3 yds. per catch)
Receiving TDs-  1
Longest Run-  31 yards
Longest Reception- 44 yards

After several years of being a backup Piccolo finally got a shot at starting in 1968 in the same backfield with Gale Sayers. The Bears "odd couple" made the running game click in 1968. Sayers ran for 856 yards in the first 9 games of the season, averaging an NFL high 6.2 yards per carry. But in the ninth game he suffered his famous knee injury against the 49ers. After the injury Piccolo picked up the slack. He finished the season with career highs in carries (123), rushing yards (450), rushing touchdowns (2) and yards from scrimmage (741). He helped Sayers the following year rehab his knee as the Kansas Comet would come back in 1969 to rush for over 1,000 yards.
Brian Piccolo on sidelines with Gale Sayers
Credit: Cleveland Press
Getting Sick

After nine games in 1969 Brian Piccolo was diagnosed with cancer. He spent the next eight months fighting the disease. While in the hospital Piccolo started to record his thoughts and life story on a tape recorder. He had plans to write a book. But on June 16, 1970, he passed away. Shorty afterward Joy Piccolo met with Jeannie Morris, the wife of Bears wide receiver Johnny Morris, and one of the first female sportswriters in Chicago. She asked Morris to finish Brian's book. She agreed, mainly as a tribute to Piccolo's three daughters.

In 1971 Brian Piccolo: A Short Season was published by Rand-McNally. The book includes much of Piccolo's thoughts that he recorded, as well as letters that he wrote over the years. One of them was written in May 1970.

"Pro football is not easy- it's damn tough profession. I think anybody who says it's easy is kidding himself. Sure we're doing something we love. But there's so damn much practice. Hockey, baseball, and basketball players- when they hit their season, they're playing games. We live from week to week- getting ready, always getting ready. It's hard work involving great physical and mental strain...but to me, it's a glorious way to make a buck.

You know, it's the fans who make it really worthwhile. You should see the mail I've been getting. I love the notes from kids, things like, "I'm sorry to hear you have a sore chest. Hope it'll get better soon"- things like that. Or the letters from people who have had surgery similar to mine. Those I really appreciate- especially the ones who've been around after their operations.

I feel I can do a heck of a lot of good, once this thing is licked, but I know it's going to take time. It's not an easy fight, and it's not a short fight. It'll take time- but hell, I've got lots of time."

Jeannie Morris's book is worth a read. It's the closest thing we have to getting to know the real Brian Piccolo.

Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, paperback cover in 1972
Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, 25th Anniversary Edition published in 1995 by Bonus Books
The proceeds from the book were originally divided up between Joy and the daughters and the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, which was created by Ed McCaskey and the Chicago Bears. The type of cancer that killed Piccolo now has a survival rate of over 95 percent with the research help provided by the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund.

Gale Sayers and I Am Third

I Am Third, Gale Sayers autobiography published in 1970
Another good source to read to learn about the real Brian Piccolo is Gale Sayers autobiography (written with Al Silverman), I Am Third, which was published in 1970 by Viking Press. In chapter six, titled "Pick" the 18-page chapter tells Sayers friendship and love for his teammate. This is the chapter that spawn the made-for-TV movie "Brian's Song." He goes into details about their relationship and the trips to the hospital to visit his sick friend. He also tells how Piccolo would make fun of him.

"He was always getting in a dig about something. Like we'd be having breakfast in the coffee shop and the waitress would say to me, 'Can I ask you your name?' And before I could answer, Pick would mumble, 'They all look alike.'

When Pick heard that Vince Lombardi had taken over I Washington, he said he thought he would like to play a little bit for Lombardi before his career was over.
'I can arrange that,' I said.

'Would you?' he said. 'I'm tired of playing in your shadow. I want to be a legend in my own time.'

But he never was that much in my shadow. He meant a lot to the Chicago Bears."

Piccolo did become a legend and a hero to many people over the past forty-six years. So today, on June 16th, let's remember Brian Piccolo.

1 comment:

  1. thanks for the story Chris. Piccolo got his first opportunity when Andy Livingston injured his knee in pre-season against the Packers in '66. At pro football reference you can look up his game logs for his career....sure helps explain his career. Was in the Coliseum in Dec. of '68 for the legendary Bears vs. was able to watch Brian play in person. He was a credit to pro football and mankind.