The history of the National Football League is littered with stories of outstanding athletes who squandered their chance at stardom by not playing up to their potential on the field or by creating problems off it. The Brian Piccolo story could not be more different.
The Chicago Bears running back got the most out of his ability on the field and was a role model off it – only to have his life cut short by cancer at the age of 26.
Brian Piccolo had an impressive college career
St. Thomas Aquinas High School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, has produced numerous NFL players over the years, but seldom has there been a player with Brian Piccolo’s compelling life story.
Piccolo was a scholastic football and baseball and earned a scholarship to Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where he blossomed into one of the school’s most accomplished running backs ever. Piccolo saw extensive playing time in his first two seasons for the Demon Deacons and then became the nation’s leading rusher and scorer as a senior with 1,044 yards and 17 touchdowns, respectively.
To appreciate just how accomplished the ACC Player of the Year was, look no further than the 1964 Heisman Trophy voting that culminated with Johnny Huarte of Notre Dame capturing the award. Though only 10th in the voting, Piccolo still finished ahead of future teammate and NFL legend Gale Sayers as well as Joe Namath, the quarterback for a 10-1 Alabama team that was voted No. 1 by the major wire services.
Piccolo’s character as a person became apparent during his junior season at a time when segregation and racial tension were pervasive in the South. College football analyst Lee Corso was a Maryland assistant coach in 1963 and recounted on ESPN College GameDay 45 years later how Piccolo crossed the field to greet a black Terrapins player in a gesture intended to stop abusive comments from the Wake Forest Student section.
Brian Piccolo’s career was cut short by cancer
Despite impressive college credentials, Brian Piccolo was not drafted by either the NFL or AFL in 1965. He signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears and made the practice squad that fall, then was brought onto the regular roster in 1966.
While Piccolo was working to establish himself, Gale Sayers was emerging as an NFL star by generating a combined 3,000 rushing and receiving yards over his first two seasons. He was also the most feared kickoff and punt returner in football.
Piccolo moved up the depth chart as Sayers’ backup, played in his place when Sayers was injured late in the 1968 season, then moved to fullback in 1969. Though not spectacular, Piccolo was reliable, rushing for 450 yards and catching 28 passes in the season in which Sayers was hurt.
Along the way, the two running backs developed a close friendship and roomed together for road games, an uncommon arrangement at a time when race was still diving the country.
Brian Piccolo’s career would come to an end late in the 1969 season when he began experiencing difficulty breathing. Tests determined that Piccolo had testicular cancer that had spread to his chest.
The story was so good that it became a movie — twice
Brian Piccolo’s left lung was removed during surgery in April 1970, but the cancer was soon found to have spread. Piccolo died on June 16, 1970, leaving behind his wife and three daughters.
Gale Sayers remained Piccolo’s close friend throughout the battle with cancer and wrote about their relationship in his autobiography. Jeanne Morris, the wife of Chicago Bears teammate Johnny Morris, penned a biography of Piccolo.
The story of a promising life cut short reached mainstream America in 1971 when James Caan and Billy Dee Williams starred in Brian’s Song, a made-for-TV movie that was highly acclaimed by critics and sports fans.
The film was remade 30 years later, this time starring Sean Maher and Mekhi Phifer.