Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Brian Piccolo


     My Dad took me to my first Bears game on November 9, 1969, at Wrigley Field. I was eight years old. The Bears throttled the Pittsburgh Steelers 38-7 for what proved to be their only victory of the season. The Chicago defense held Pittsburgh to 31 yards rushing and also recorded eight sacks, including two in the end zone (by Ed O'Bradovich and Dick Butkus). On offense, the great Gale Sayers rushed for 112 yards and two touchdowns and quarterback Bobby Douglass rushed for 72 yards. Running back Brian Piccolo notched the Bears' first touchdown on a 25-yard pass reception from Douglass.
     The victory turned out to be a mixed blessing for the Bears. When the Steelers also finished 1-13, they got the first pick in the next year's NFL draft by virtue of having lost to the Bears. The Steelers selected quarterback Terry Bradshaw, and they won four Super Bowls in the next ten years.
     Back to Sayers and Piccolo. Both had joined the Bears as rookies in 1965, Sayers as a first-round draft pick (fourth overall) out of Kansas and Piccolo as an undrafted free agent from Wake Forest. They'd been best friends ever since. Sayers had been a superstar all along, while Piccolo was still in the process of establishing himself. His touchdown against the Steelers was just the fourth of his career, whereas Sayers had tallied six in one game as a rookie and totaled 52 for his career to this point.
     The Bears traveled to Atlanta the next Sunday, November 16, and lost to the Falcons 48-31. Sayers scored the Bears' first touchdown on a 10-yard gallop, and Piccolo scored the last on a one-yard plunge.
     Piccolo never played football again. He had not been feeling well for some time and was suffering frequent coughing spells. When the Bears returned to Chicago after the Atlanta game, he was sent to the doctor for tests and soon diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of lung cancer.
     Piccolo died at the tender age of 26 on June 16, 1970, seven months to the day after his final game for the Bears. He was survived by his wife Joy and their three young daughters.
     It has now been 40 years (last Wednesday, to be exact) since Piccolo's passing, but he has not been forgotten. Both the Bears and the Atlantic Coast Conference present annual awards named for Piccolo, honoring players judged to have been the most courageous. And, of course, his legacy has been preserved by Brian's Song, the 1971 film that explores the close relationship between Piccolo (played by James Caan) and Sayers (played by Billy Dee Williams).
     Brian's Song is probably the greatest Chicago sports movie of all time. Film critic Leonard Maltin called it "a milestone of excellence." If you haven't seen Brian's Song for a while, it's a good time to give it another look. Don't forget the Kleenex; Michel Legrand's music score alone is enough to set off the waterworks.