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Sunday, October 21, 2001
Updated: June 9, 2:24 PM ET
Brian's life a Song of friendship, courage

By Mike Puma
Special to ESPN.com

"There's no question that Brian Piccolo's story was amplified by the movie. And now generations later, you don't know how many guys who ordinarily would be loath to admit that they shed a tear, will tell you at the drop of a hat, I still cry every time I see Brian's Song," says Bob Costas on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Just mentioning his name offers us a reminder that each day can't be taken for granted. Brian Piccolo didn't live long enough to fulfill his dream of becoming a great NFL running back. But in death, from cancer at just 26, he became a symbol of courage.

Brian Piccolo, who led the nation in rushing and scoring at Wake Forest in 1964, rushed for 927 yards in four NFL seasons.
The 1971 made-for-television movie "Brian's Song" tugged at the nation's heart, telling the story of Piccolo's friendship -- one that shattered racial boundaries -- with his African-American Chicago Bears teammate Gale Sayers and Piccolo's final days. Piccolo was played by James Caan and Sayers by Billy Dee Williams.

Piccolo spent four seasons with the Bears and never escaped Sayers' overwhelming shadow. Although Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring as a senior at Wake Forest in 1964, beating out two-time All-American Sayers among others, he wasn't drafted. Scouts believed the 5-foot-11, 190-pound back wasn't big or fast enough.

The Bears signed him as a free agent. Piccolo spent a year on the Bears' taxi squad before rushing 258 times for 927 yards and catching 58 passes for 537 yards from 1966-69. He scored four touchdowns.

"I don't like practice," Piccolo said in his biography A Short Season, which was published in 1971, a year after his death. "But competition, the game, it's glorious. You're doing something you love."

Known for his mild temper and sense of humor, Piccolo had a recipe for success: talent, determination and luck. "You have to be in the right place at the right time," he said. "In my case, I happened to be a running back and they happened to draft Gale Sayers the same year. That's not exactly the best way to bust into the league. That's not exactly what you'd call being in the right place at the right time."

The youngest of three brothers, Piccolo was born on Oct. 31, 1943 in Pittsfield, Mass. When he was three, the family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where the warm climate was beneficial to his brother Don, who had health problems.

Brian's parents, Joseph and Irene, opened a sandwich shop in Fort Lauderdale. Joseph had previously driven a Greyhound bus and operated a driving school in Massachusetts.

Piccolo soon followed the lead of his brothers and took an interest in athletics. His passion was baseball, which he considered his primary sport through high school.

At Central Catholic High School, he played offensive tackle as a freshman and wasn't switched to halfback until his senior season. Despite a lack of speed, Piccolo received two scholarship offers -- and he chose Wake Forest over Wichita State.

ESPN Classic
Reel Classics presents "Brian's Song," starring James Caan and Billy Dee Williams, on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 9 p.m. ET.

He played for the freshman team in 1961 and averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns. In his sophomore and junior seasons, the first 18 games he played in were losses. Piccolo, though, led the team in rushing each season, but not with particularly impressive totals (324 yards and 367).

But in his senior season, he blossomed into a star, running for 1,044 yards on 252 carries (a 4.1-yard average) and scoring 111 points on 17 touchdowns and nine extra points. Though named Atlantic Coast Conference Player of the Year, no NFL team chose him in the draft on Nov. 28, 1964.

"Four hundred and forty draftees and none of 'em me," Piccolo said. "I was disappointed and embarrassed. Really embarrassed."

Piccolo married his high school sweetheart, Joy Murrath, on December 26 and signed a free-agent contract with the Bears three days later. Piccolo had been talking with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, but chose the Bears because owner George Halas offered him the most money.

The Bears had finished the season last in rushing.

"I figured they needed help," Piccolo said. "Fortunately for Bears fans and unfortunately for me, they got it -- from Gale Sayers."

James Caan (l) portrayed Brian Piccolo in 1971's "Brian's Song."
Before his first training camp, Piccolo pulled a hamstring. When he practiced, he was ineffective. After clearing waivers, he was signed to the Bears' taxi squad; he could practice with the team, but wasn't in uniform for games.

Piccolo hoped to become the team's starting fullback, in the same backfield with Sayers, in 1966. Halas had other ideas, and Piccolo spent the season playing on special teams, running from scrimmage only three times.

But Piccolo's playing time increased the next season, in which he gained 317 yards rushing and averaged 4.1 yards per carry as a backup to Sayers, his new roommate. The two became the first white and black men to room together in the NFL at a time the civil-rights movement was at its height.

"Pic never badmouthed anybody," Sayers said. "They say that people who like themselves like other people, and Brian was never short on self confidence. He truly liked people."

In the ninth game of 1968, Sayers suffered a ruptured cartilage and two torn ligaments in his right knee, ending his season. Piccolo became the starter. In late November against the Dallas Cowboys, he sprained an ankle, but after spending his career as a backup, Piccolo was determined to remain in the lineup. He took shots of a Novocain and cortisone to dull the pain.

In the next game, Piccolo had the only 100-yard rushing performance of his career, carrying 21 times for 112 yards in the Bears' 23-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints. In six games as a starter, Piccolo gained 450 yards.

Sayers returned in 1969, and Piccolo was again relegated to being his backup. He began coughing early in the season. On November 16 in Atlanta, after scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown in a 48-31 loss to the Falcons, he removed himself from the game, bothered by chest pains and that persistent cough.

Two days later, Piccolo took a chest X-ray. A tumor was spotted in his lungs, and Piccolo was sent to New York's Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He underwent surgery to remove the malignant tumor on November 28, at which time his doctor determined the cancer had spread.

Two weeks later, the Bears organized a press conference at his home and Piccolo announced his intent to continue playing football.

Piccolo began chemotherapy treatments and spent Christmas at home with his wife and three young daughters. On April 9, 1970, his left lung and left breast were removed.

Six weeks later, Sayers, who had recovered from his injuries to win the NFL rushing title, was honored with the George Halas Award as the league's most courageous player for the 1969 season. At a ceremony in New York, Sayers gave an emotional speech saying there was somebody more deserving of the award.

"He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent -- cancer," Sayers told the audience. "He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' 24 hours a day of his life. . . . I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."

Piccolo was re-admitted to the hospital in early June, bothered by chest pain, and it was determined the cancer had spread to other organs. He died on June 16, 1970.

The Bears honor his memory by presenting the Brian Piccolo award each year to the rookie and veteran who best exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor displayed by Piccolo.