Brian Piccolo found recognition hard to come by. Despite leading the nation in rushing as a senior at Wake Forest, he was passed over in the 1965 NFL draft. And after signing with the Bears as a free agent, he played second fiddle to one of the greatest players in NFL history. Only after he died, on June 16, 1970, at the age of 26, was Piccolo truly recognized.
Today his story is well known, having been the subject of an Emmy Award-winning TV movie in 1971. Brian's Song traced the relationship between Piccolo and fellow running back Gayle Sayers. When the Bears integrated roommates in 1967, Piccolo was the first white to volunteer to room with a black, and the two hit it off immediately. Their friendship was deep—just how deep became clear after Piccolo was found to have cancer.
Piccolo had come out of a November 1969 game against the Falcons, saying he was having trouble breathing. X-rays showed a growth on one of his lungs, and the cancer eventually ravaged his body.
When Sayers was presented the next spring with a courage award as the comeback player for 1969, he said Piccolo was the one who displayed the real courage. "I love Brian Piccolo," Sayers told a hushed audience, "and I'd like all of you to love him, too. And tonight when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him." A month later Piccolo was dead.
But he did not die in vain. The Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Today the survival rate for embryonal cell carcinoma, the cancer that killed Piccolo, is 95%.
Piccolo's legacy lives on at his high school in Fort Lauderdale, where the football stadium bears his name. Numerous humanitarian awards also carry his name.
The research fund was recognized before Sunday's Bear-Steeler game when NFL Charities, Champion Products and the department store Carson Pirie Scott presented it with a $55,000 check. Fittingly, Sayers was there to accept it.