Courage, Cancer, and Brian Piccolo

When Gale Sayers won the George S. Halas Award for being the most courageous football player in the 1969 season, he told the audience the award had been given to the wrong man. He believed it belonged to Brian Piccolo, legendary running back for the Chicago Bears. In his acceptance speech Gale told the audience, “He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent – cancer.” Almost a year after receiving the award, Gale’s friend, Brian Piccolo, died of cancer.

Embryonic cell carcinoma, a condition that appeared in one excised lymph node indicated that the cancer might have spread to more of the hundreds of lymph nodes located in the chest area. It would have been impossible to remove all of them.

Piccolo’s long hospital stays prompted Jeannie Morris, wife of former Bears teammate Johnny Morris, to suggest that Brian write a book to relieve his boredom from his hospital stays. Brian agreed and their combined efforts surfaced in, Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, by Jeannie Morris.

While the book is written about a football player, it is not about football. It’s about a man who loved his wife and adored his children. It’s about a man who knew how to treat other people fairly regardless of their race, their religion, or their frailties.

Brian’s wife Joy grew up with a sister, Carol, who was born with cerebral palsy, and Brian made sure she knew she was special. When he asked Joy to marry him, Brian placed a ring on her finger, and then presented Carol with a ring of her own.

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His affections were always reciprocated, whether with friends or family, and he was loyal to all of them as they were to him.

Brian also enjoyed a good laugh. In the days when training camp offered little more than a place to eat, sleep, and work out, the Bears would find their own form of entertainment. During Bears Training Camp in Rensselaer, Indiana, Brian found pleasure in taunting “The Spy,” the person responsible for reporting off-hour activities to management. Brian and his teammates would run the spy ragged, then scramble to get behind the spy so they could chase the man who was following them.

Before speaking engagements, and possibly because Brian majored in speech at Wake Forest University, Dick Butkus would ask Brian for help with his speeches. After finding out how much Butkus made from those speeches, Brian asked, “Why in the hell should I be giving you material?” But, loyal friend that he was, he always gave Dick what he asked for.

Known for his confidence on the field and off, Brian even bragged that he could make “Linguine with White Clam Sauce” like nobody else. Jeannie Morris, author of the aforementioned book apparently agreed. She included the recipe in her book. Butkus once said of Piccolo, “…he had confidence, all kinds of confidence.”

But he needed more than confidence to win the game of life. The pain and the coughing increased as the months sped by. His friends may have known before he did that his end was near. In February 1970, a dental school friend, Dan Arnold, asked him specifically what his medical condition was. Brian read him the diagnosis. Arnold then asked a pathologist friend what he would say if somebody told him he had “malignant mediastinal teratoma, predominantly embyonal cell carcinoma?” The friend told Arnold he would be dead in six months.

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The book focuses not only on Piccolo’s life, but also on the way he lived it, with humor, with sensitivity, and with love. Even up until three hours before he died, through immense pain, he couldn’t acknowledge defeat, but on June 16, 1970, the short life of Brian Piccolo ended at the age of 26.

Brian Piccolo, number 41 for only four seasons, was so revered by his fellow Bears, they retired his number, one of only a few numbers retired in all of Bears history. In his honor and following his death, Brian’s friends established the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund. The man whose name in Italian means, “very small” left a very big mark on the world and hope for those with cancer.