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Brian Piccolo

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Piccolo in 1967
No. 41
Position: Running Back / Fullback
Personal information
Date of birth: (1943-10-31)October 31, 1943
Place of birth: Pittsfield, Massachusetts, U.S.
Date of death: June 16, 1970(1970-06-16) (aged 26)
Place of death: New York, New York, U.S.
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Weight: Script error: No such module "convert".
Career information
College: Wake Forest
Undrafted: 1965
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career Template:If empty statistics
Rushing yards: 927
Rushing TDs: 4
Receiving yards: 537
Receiving TDs: 1
Stats at

Louis Brian Piccolo (October 31, 1943 – June 16, 1970) was a professional football player, a running back for the Chicago Bears for four years. He died from embryonal cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer, first diagnosed after it had spread to his chest cavity. He was the subject of the 1971 TV movie Brian's Song, with a remake (of the same title) TV movie filmed in 2001. Piccolo was portrayed in the original film by James Caan and by Sean Maher in the 2001 remake.

Early life

Piccolo was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sons to Joseph and Irene Piccolo. The family moved south to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Piccolo was three, due to his parents' concerns for his brother Don's health. Piccolo and his brothers were athletes, and he was a star running back on his high school football team although he considered baseball his primary sport.[1] He graduated from the former Central Catholic High School (now St. Thomas Aquinas High School) in Fort Lauderdale in 1961.[1]

Piccolo played college football at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; his only other scholarship offer was from Wichita State in southern Kansas. He led the nation in rushing and scoring during his senior season in 1964 and was named the ACC Player of the Year, yet went unselected in the 1965 NFL Draft.[2]

In 1963, Darryl Hill of the University of Maryland was the first and only African-American football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. According to Lee Corso, a Maryland assistant coach at that time, Wake Forest had "the worst atmosphere" of any campus the Maryland football team visited. Piccolo went over to the Maryland bench, walked Hill over to the area in front of the student section and put his arm around him, silencing the crowd.[3]

Following his spectacular senior season Piccolo married his high school sweetheart, Joy Murrath, on December 26, 1964.[4] They had three daughters: Lori, Traci, and Kristi.[1]

NFL career

Because he was not selected in the 1965 NFL Draft or AFL Draft,[4] Piccolo tried out for the Chicago Bears as a free agent.[5] He made the team for the 1965 season, but only on the taxi squad (known today as the practice squad), meaning he could practice but not suit up for games. In 1966, he made the main roster but his playing time was primarily on special teams. In 1967 he got more playing time backing up superstar starting tailback Gale Sayers, after Sayers' knee injury in November 1968.[6][7][8] Piccolo's biggest statistical year was 1968, during which he posted career bests with 450 yards on 123 carries (a 3.7 average), two touchdowns, and 28 receptions for 291 yards (a 10.4 average).[9]

In 1969, Piccolo was moved up to starting fullback, with Sayers returning as tailback.

Players at that time were still segregated by race for hotel-room assignments. At the suggestion of the Bears' captain, the policy was changed and each player was reassigned by position, so that wide receivers would room together, quarterbacks would room together, etc. Running back was the only position on the 1969 Bears with one black and one white player, Sayers and Piccolo, respectively.

Cancer and death

The Bears were in the midst of a 1-13 season in 1969, the worst record in their history.[10] Piccolo had finally earned a place in the starting lineup as an undersized fullback. During the ninth game in Atlanta on November 16, he voluntarily removed himself from the game, something he had never done, raising great concern among his teammates and coaches. Breathing while playing had become extremely difficult for him, so when the team returned to Chicago he was promptly sent for a medical examination and diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma.[11]

Soon after initial surgery at Sloan-Kettering in New York City to remove the tumor, he underwent a second procedure in April 1970 to remove his left lung and pectoral muscle. Bothered by chest pain afterward, he was re-admitted to the hospital in early June and doctors determined the cancer had spread to other organs, most notably his liver. He died in the early morning of June 16 at the age of 26.[12] The month before Piccolo's death, Gale Sayers was accepting the George S. Halas Award for Most Courageous Player and told the crowd that they had selected the wrong person for the award. He said, "I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees to pray, please ask God to love him, too."[13][14]

Sayers and Dick Butkus were among the six Bears teammates who served as pallbearers at Piccolo's funeral in Chicago on June 19.[15] He was buried at Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park, Illinois.[16]


  • In 1972, Brian Piccolo Middle School 53 opened in Queens, New York on Nameoke Street in Far Rockaway. The school name was chosen by students after the first airing of Brian's Song. The football jersey that belonged to Brian Piccolo that was displayed in the lobby has been missing since they renovated the school in the late 1990s.
  • In August 1973, Orr Middle School, located on the West Side of Chicago on Keeler Avenue, was renamed after Piccolo to the Brian Piccolo Specialty School.
  • In 1980, students at Wake Forest, Piccolo's alma mater, began the Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund Drive in his memory.[17] They raised money for the Comprehensive Cancer Center at the Bowman Gray Medical Center of Wake Forest University. In addition, the Brian Piccolo Student Volunteer Program was established to provide undergraduates with an opportunity to work at the Cancer Center as volunteers. A dormitory at Wake Forest is also named in his honor.
  • In memory of Piccolo's accomplishments, the St. Thomas Aquinas High School football stadium in Fort Lauderdale is named after him. At the end of every football game, the school's marching band plays "The Hands of Time", the theme from Brian's Song.
  • Each season since 1972, the Atlantic Coast Conference has awarded the Brian Piccolo Award to the conference's "Most Courageous Player". In 2007, the recipient was Matt Robinson of Wake Forest, the fourth player from Piccolo's alma mater to be given the award. Since 1970, the Chicago Bears have also handed out an award by the same name to a rookie and (since 1992) a veteran who "best exemplifies the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor" of Piccolo. The winners are chosen by the Bears' veteran players. Nick Roach and Stephen Paea were the recipients of the Award in 2012.[18]
  • An Italian-American organization, UNICO (an acronym for Unity, Neighborliness, Integrity, Charity, and Opportunity), honors his memory each year by awarding the Brian Piccolo Award to courageous and outstanding athletes of Italian-American heritage. In 2009 Brian's brother Don attended his first UNICO award ceremony in Rivervale, New Jersey, where he delivered a speech.

Brian's Song

Main article: Brian's Song

The film Brian's Song, loosely based on Gale Sayers' autobiography, tells the story of the friendship between Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and their time together while playing football for the Chicago Bears, up until Piccolo's death.[19] It first aired in 1971 on ABC on Tuesday, November 30, less than 18 months after his death, and starred James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers. It was such a success on television that it was later shown in theaters. A remake aired in 2001 on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney and starred Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher.


Piccolo's biography, Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, was written by Jeannie Morris (the wife of Chicago Bear teammate Johnny Morris) and featured passages written by Piccolo himself for a planned autobiography.


  1. ^ a b c Morris, Jeannie (January 20, 1972). "Young, confident Pic chooses the NFL". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (from Brian Piccolo: A Short Season). p. 10. 
  2. ^ Puma, Mike (November 10, 2003). "Brian's life a Song of friendship, courage". ESPN Classic. Retrieved August 6, 2013. 
  3. ^ Recounted on the ESPN College GameDay broadcast November 15, 2008
  4. ^ a b Crittenden, John (December 16, 1964). "Piccolo playing own tune after pro draft marches by". Miami News. p. 4B. 
  5. ^ "Bears sign on draft rejectee". The Robesonian. Associated Press. December 30, 1964. p. 8. 
  6. ^ "Bears beat 49ers 27-19, but lose Sayers for year". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI. November 11, 1968. p. 1-part 2. 
  7. ^ "Piccolo replace Sayers in Bears' starting unit". Nashua Telegraph. Associated Press. November 16, 1968. p. 12. 
  8. ^ "Brian Piccolo back in lineup". Fort Scott Tribune. NEA. July 11, 1969. p. 6. 
  9. ^
  10. ^ Chicago Bears History
  11. ^ Brian Piccolo, Chicago Bears Running Back 1965-1969
  12. ^ "Brian Piccolo is dead at 26". Spokesman-Review. Associated Press. June 17, 1970. p. 19. 
  13. ^ Brian Piccolo - Always an Underdog and Always a Fighter - Yahoo Voices
  14. ^ "Sayers, Halas praise Piccolo's courage". Milwaukee Sentinel. Associated Press. June 17, 1970. p. 1-part 2. 
  15. ^ "Piccolo requiem held". Palm Beach Post-Times. wire services. June 20, 1970. p. B-5. 
  16. ^ "Piccolo services Friday". Miami News. Associated Press. June 17, 1970. p. 2C. 
  17. ^ Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund Drive
  18. ^ Biggs, Brad (2012-04-24). "Bears LB Roach wins Piccolo Award". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2012-12-28. 
  19. ^ Murray, Jim (September 16, 1971). "America misses Piccolo". Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, Virginia). (Los Angeles Times). p. 11. 

External links