The 1971 made-for-television movie tugged at the nation’s heart, telling the story of these two men’s friendship — one that shattered racial boundaries – and Piccolo’s final days.
Piccolo spent four seasons with the Bears and never escaped Sayers’ overwhelming shadow. Although Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring as a senior at Wake Forest in 1964, beating out two-time All-American Sayers among others, he wasn’t drafted. Scouts believed the 5-foot-11, 190-pound back wasn’t big or fast enough.
Piccolo married his high school sweetheart, Joy Murrath, and signed a free-agent contract with the Bears. Piccolo had been talking with the Cleveland Browns and Baltimore Colts, but chose the Bears because owner George Halas offered him the most money.
Known for his mild temper and sense of humor, Piccolo had a recipe for success: talent, determination and luck. “You have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said. “In my case, I happened to be a running back and they happened to draft Gale Sayers the same year. That’s not exactly the best way to bust into the league. That’s not exactly what you’d call being in the right place at the right time.”
“Pic never badmouthed anybody,” Sayers said. “They say that people who like themselves like other people, and Brian was never short on self confidence. He truly liked people.”
In the ninth game of 1968, Sayers suffered a ruptured cartilage and two torn ligaments in his right knee, ending his season. Piccolo became the starter. In late November against the Dallas Cowboys, he sprained an ankle, but after spending his career as a backup, Piccolo was determined to remain in the lineup. He took shots of a Novocain and cortisone to dull the pain.
In the next game, Piccolo had the only 100-yard rushing performance of his career, carrying 21 times for 112 yards in the Bears’ 23-17 victory over the New Orleans Saints. In six games as a starter, Piccolo gained 450 yards.
Sayers returned in 1969, and Piccolo was again relegated to being his backup. He began coughing early in the season. On November 16 in Atlanta, after scoring a fourth-quarter touchdown, he removed himself from the game, bothered by chest pains and that persistent cough.
Two days later, Piccolo took a chest X-ray. A tumor was spotted in his lungs, and Piccolo was sent to New York’s Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. He underwent surgery to remove the malignant tumor on at which time his doctor determined the cancer had spread.
Two weeks later, the Bears organized a press conference at his home and Piccolo announced his intent to continue playing football.
Piccolo began chemotherapy treatments and spent Christmas at home with his wife and three young daughters. On April 9, 1970, his left lung and left breast were removed.
Six weeks later, Sayers, who had recovered from his injuries to win the NFL rushing title, was honored with the George Halas Award as the league’s most courageous player for the 1969 season. At a ceremony in New York, Sayers gave an emotional speech saying there was somebody more deserving of the award.
“He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent — cancer,” Sayers told the audience. “He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word ‘courage’ 24 hours a day of his life. . . . I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
Piccolo was re-admitted to the hospital in early June, bothered by chest pain, and it was determined the cancer had spread to other organs. He died on June 16, 1970.
The Bears honor his memory by presenting the Brian Piccolo award each year to the rookie and veteran who best exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor displayed by Piccolo.