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The Grave of Brian Piccolo

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Thursday, October 6, 2022

I remember seeing the TV movie “Brian’s Song” when I was a kid.  The story of the friendship between Gale Sayers and Brian Piccolo was inspirational at a time when race relations in the country were less than ideal. It was also a very emotional story that had a profound effect on me and generations of football fans ever since. (This is Gridiron Grave visit #40)

Louis Brian Piccolo was born on October 31, 1943 in Pittsfield, Mass. His family moved to Fort Lauderdale, FL when he was three years old and he went on to become a star running back at Central Catholic High School. Piccolo also excelled on his high school baseball and track teams. The high school has produced a number of NFL players over the years including Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin of the Dallas Cowboys.

Piccolo accepted a college football scholarship from Wake Forest. He had a breakout senior season in 1964, leading the nation in rushing with an ACC-record 1,044 yards. He also led the nation in scoring with 111 points on 17 touchdowns and nine extra points. He set nine school records, six conference records and was chosen ACC Player of the Year. He finished 10th in Heisman Trophy voting that year.  

Piccolo was not selected during the 20 rounds of the 1965 NFL Draft. Many teams thought that he was too small to play fullback in the NFL at five-foot 11 inches tall and 195 pounds.

But after the draft, Piccolo signed with the Chicago Bears as a free agent. Bears owner and coach, George Halas, even held a press conference to announce Piccolo's signing, something that was unprecedented for an undrafted player.

Piccolo spent his 1965 rookie season on the Bears' practice squad. He was able to practice with the team but did not suit up for games.

In 1966, Piccolo appeared in all 14 regular season games, but played primarily on special teams.

Piccolo and Sayers were part of the same Bears rookie class in 1965. The two developed a close friendship and in 1967, the two began rooming together on the road, becoming the NFL's first interracial roommates. Piccolo was Sayers’ backup that season.

Piccolo's most productive season came in 1968 when he ran for a career-high 450 yards and two touchdowns on 123 carries. He also had 28 receptions for 291 yards. The majority of his workload came in the final six games after Sayers sustained a season-ending knee injury against the 49ers.

Piccolo recorded the only 100-yard game of his career on Dec. 1, 1968 when he rushed for 112 yards on 21 carries in a 23-17 win over the Saints in New Orleans.

After Sayers’ knee injury in 1968, Piccolo helped him with his rehab. When Sayers returned to play in 1969, Sayers led the NFL in rushing with 1,032 yards and eight touchdowns on 236 carries. Piccolo reverted back to his role as backup running back but also practiced at fullback. After the Bears starting fullback Ronnie Bull was injured in the sixth game of the season, Piccolo became the starting fullback alongside Sayers in the backfield in a game against the Minnesota Vikings.

In a road game against the Atlanta Falcons on Nov. 16, 1969, Piccolo was not feeling well and took himself out of the game because he was having trouble breathing. He never set foot on an NFL field again.

Later that month, Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma. He underwent a four-and-a-half-hour surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his chest that was the size of a grapefruit.

After finding a lump on his chest in February 1970, Piccolo returned to New York and spent a month undergoing chemotherapy treatments. But the disease did not respond, and in March he underwent a mastectomy and had lymph nodes removed from his chest. During a third procedure in April, Piccolo had his left lung removed.

On May 25, 1970, three weeks before Piccolo passed away, Sayers was in New York to accept the George S. Halas Award as the NFL's most courageous player. During an emotional acceptance speech, Sayers, who was being honored for rebounding from his knee injury, told the crowd that it was Piccolo who deserved the award. Sayers even taped Piccolo's name over his own on the trophy and presented it to his friend the next day in the hospital.

"You flatter me by giving me this award," Sayers said. "But I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the award. It is mine tonight. It is Brian Piccolo's tomorrow.

"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.

"He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' 24 hours a day every day of his life."

The cancer spread to other parts of his body and Piccolo ultimately succumbed to the disease on June 16, 1970 at the age of 26 after playing just four seasons with the Bears (1966-1969). He appeared in 51 games and started 10 for the Bears.

Six of Piccolo's Bears teammates served as pallbearers at his funeral: Sayers, Dick Butkus, Ed O'Bradovich, Mike Pyle, Randy Jackson and Ralph Kurek.

Bears owner George Halas said of Piccolo, "Brian made the most of the brief 26 years allotted to him, and he will not be forgotten."

The Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund was created in 1970 shortly after his death to fight embryonal cell carcinoma. At the time Piccolo died, the disease was 100 percent fatal. But significant advances were made in the 1970s and '80s and today the cure rate is over 95 percent.

With the disease seemingly under control, proceeds from the fund were redirected in 1991 to benefit breast cancer research at Rush Medical Center in Chicago as well as provide support to the Clearbrook Center for the developmentally disabled in Arlington Heights.

Piccolo awards are presented annually to the most courageous college football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference as well as to the Bears veteran and rookie who best exemplify Piccolo's courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor.

At Wake Forest, students conduct an annual Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund Drive, his college #31 is retired and there's a dormitory named after him. Other facilities that bear Piccolo's name include the St. Thomas Aquinas High School football stadium (formerly Central Catholic High School) in south Florida, an elementary school on the West Side of Chicago, and parks in Chicago and in Cooper City, FL, near Fort Lauderdale.

Since Piccolo's death, over than $13 million has been raised for cancer research in his name. $10 million by the Brian Piccolo Research Fund and $3 million by Wake Forest.

"Brian Piccolo: A Short Season," written by Jeannie Morris was published in 1971 and re-released in 2020 on the 50th anniversary of his death.

The TV movie "Brian's Song," with James Caan starring as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers, first aired on the ABC Tuesday Night Movie of the Week on November 30, 1971. It was such a success that it was later shown in movie theaters.

Some of the filming occurred during Bears 1971 training camp at St. Joseph's College in Rensselaer, IN. Several players appeared in the film as themselves, including Butkus, O'Bradovich and quarterback Jack Concannon. The movie won four Emmy Awards and was nominated for several others.

A remake of "Brian's Song" aired in 2001 on ABC's "The Wonderful World of Disney” starring Sean Maher as Piccolo and Mekhi Phifer as Sayers.

Brian Piccolo became a charter member of the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame in 1971. His #41 was also retired by the Chicago Bears.

Finding his Grave

Brian Piccolo is buried Section AM of the Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park, IL. It is located on the corner of West 87th Street and Hamlin Avenue. As you enter the cemetery from West 87th Street, follow the road to the right and continue all the way around to the back side of the mausoleum. You will see a sign for Section AM. Piccolo’s grave is to the right of the sign along the road, next to one of the trees. It is also to the left of a small family mausoleum with the name “Tarantino” on it.  


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