Brian Piccolo
refer to caption
Piccolo in 1967
No. 41
Personal information
Born:(1943-10-31)October 31, 1943
Pittsfield, Massachusetts, U.S.
Died:June 16, 1970(1970-06-16) (aged 26)
New York, New York, U.S.
Height:6 ft 0 in (1.83 m)
Weight:205 lb (93 kg)
Career information
High school:St. Thomas Aquinas (Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
College:Wake Forest
Career history
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Rushing yards:927
Rushing average:3.6
Rushing touchdowns:4
Receiving yards:537
Receiving touchdowns:1
Player stats at · PFR

Louis Brian Piccolo (October 31, 1943 – June 16, 1970) was an American professional football player who was a halfback for the Chicago Bears of the National Football League (NFL) for four years. He played college football for the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. He died at age 26 from embryonal cell carcinoma, an aggressive form of germ cell testicular cancer, first diagnosed after it had spread to his chest cavity.

Piccolo was the subject of the 1971 TV movie Brian's Song, with a remake TV movie of the same name filmed in 2001. He was portrayed in the original film by James Caan and by Sean Maher in the 2001 remake.[1]

Early life

Piccolo was born in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, the youngest of three sons of Joseph and Irene Piccolo. The family moved south to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Piccolo was three, due to his parents' concerns for his brother Don's health. Piccolo and his brothers were athletes, and he was a star running back on his high school football team, although he considered baseball his primary sport.[2] He graduated from the former Central Catholic High School (now St. Thomas Aquinas High School) in Fort Lauderdale in 1961.[2]

Piccolo played college football at Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, North Carolina; his only other scholarship offer was from Wichita State. He led the nation in rushing and scoring during his senior season in 1964,[3] and was named the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) Player of the Year,[4] yet went unselected in both the AFL and NFL drafts.[5][6]

In the balloting for the Heisman Trophy won by John Huarte of Notre Dame, Piccolo was tenth, just ahead of Joe Namath of Alabama, and future teammate Gale Sayers of Kansas.[7][8]

A season earlier in 1963, Darryl Hill of the University of Maryland was the first and only African-American football player in the ACC. According to Lee Corso, a Maryland assistant coach at that time, Wake Forest had "the worst atmosphere" of any campus the Maryland football team visited. Piccolo went over to the Maryland bench, walked Hill over to the area in front of the student section and put his arm around him, silencing the crowd.[9]

Following his spectacular senior season, Piccolo married his high school sweetheart, Joy Murrath, on December 26, 1964.[10] They had three daughters: Lori, Traci, and Kristi.[2]

NFL career

Because he was not selected in the 1965 NFL draft or AFL draft,[10] Piccolo tried out for the Chicago Bears as a free agent.[11] He made the team for the 1965 season, but only on the taxi squad (known today as the practice squad), meaning he could practice but not suit up for games. In 1966, he made the main roster but his playing time was primarily on special teams. In 1967 he got more playing time backing up superstar starting tailback Gale Sayers, which increased after Sayers' knee injury in November 1968.[12][13][14] Piccolo's biggest statistical year was 1968, during which he posted career bests with 450 yards on 123 carries (a 3.7 average), two touchdowns, and 28 receptions for 291 yards (a 10.4 average).[15]

In 1969, Piccolo was moved up to starting fullback, with Sayers returning as halfback, placing the two in the same backfield on offense.

Players at that time were still segregated by race for hotel-room assignments. At the suggestion of the Bears' captain, the policy was changed and each player was reassigned by position, so that wide receivers would room together, quarterbacks would room together, etc. Running back was the only position of the 1969 Bears with one black and one white player, Sayers and Piccolo, respectively.

Cancer and death

The Bears were in the midst of a 1–13 season in 1969, the worst record in their history.[16] Piccolo had earned a place in the starting lineup as an undersized fullback. Their only win came in the eighth game on November 9, a 38–7 home win over struggling Pittsburgh. Piccolo opened the scoring at Wrigley Field with a 25-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter.[17][18][19] The next week in Atlanta, he scored a fourth-quarter touchdown on a one-yard run,[20][21] and then voluntarily removed himself from the game, something he had never done,[22] raising great concern among his teammates and coaches. Breathing while playing had become extremely difficult for him, so when the team returned to Chicago, he was promptly sent for a medical examination at which he was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma.[23]

Piccolo's grave at Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery

Soon after initial surgery at Sloan-Kettering in Manhattan, New York to remove the tumor, he underwent a second procedure in April 1970 to remove his left lung and left pectoral muscle. Bothered by continuing chest pain afterward, he was re-admitted to the hospital in early June where doctors determined the cancer had spread to other organs, particularly his liver. He died in the early morning of June 16 at the age of 26.[22][24][25] The month before Piccolo's death, Gale Sayers accepted the George S. Halas Award for Most Courageous Player and told the crowd they had selected the wrong person for the award. He said, "I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees to pray, please ask God to love him, too."

Dick Butkus, Randy Jackson, Ralph Kurek, Ed O'Bradovich, Mike Pyle, and Gale Sayers were the six Bears teammates who served as pallbearers at Piccolo's funeral at Christ the King Catholic Church in Chicago on June 19. He was buried at Saint Mary Catholic Cemetery in Evergreen Park, Illinois.[26]


Brian's Song

Main article: Brian's Song

The film Brian's Song, loosely based on Gale Sayers' autobiography, tells the story of the friendship between Brian Piccolo and Gale Sayers and their time together while playing football for the Chicago Bears, up until Piccolo's death.[31] It first aired Tuesday, November 30, 1971 on ABC, less than 18 months after his death, and starred James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers. It was such a success on television that it was later shown in theaters.

A remake aired in 2001 on ABC's The Wonderful World of Disney, and starred Mekhi Phifer and Sean Maher.[32]


Piccolo's biography, Brian Piccolo: A Short Season, was written by Jeannie Morris (a journalist whose husband was former Bears teammate Johnny Morris) and featured passages written by Piccolo himself for a planned autobiography.

See also


  1. ^ Brian's Song IMDB
  2. ^ a b c Morris, Jeannie (January 20, 1972). "Young, confident Pic chooses the NFL". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. (from Brian Piccolo: A Short Season). p. 10.
  3. ^ "Piccolo top grid scorer". Toledo Blade. Ohio. Associated Press. December 10, 1964. p. 62.
  4. ^ "1964 Atlantic Coast Conference Year Summary". Retrieved April 20, 2020.
  5. ^ "Pro loops bypass Wake's Piccolo". Spartanburg Herald-Journal. South Carolina. Associated Press. November 30, 1964. p. 9.
  6. ^ Puma, Mike (November 10, 2003). "Brian's life a Song of friendship, courage". ESPN Classic. Retrieved August 6, 2013.
  7. ^ "Huarte wins Heisman gridiron trophy". Chicago Tribune. Associated Press. November 25, 1964. p. 1, sec. 3.
  8. ^ "John Huarte". Heisman Trophy. 1964. Retrieved January 25, 2017.
  9. ^ Recounted on the ESPN College GameDay broadcast November 15, 2008
  10. ^ a b Crittenden, John (December 16, 1964). "Piccolo playing own tune after pro draft marches by". Miami News. p. 4B.[permanent dead link]
  11. ^ "Bears sign on draft rejectee". The Robesonian. Associated Press. December 30, 1964. p. 8.
  12. ^ "Bears beat 49ers 27–19, but lose Sayers for year". Milwaukee Sentinel. UPI. November 11, 1968. p. 1-part 2.[permanent dead link]
  13. ^ "Piccolo replace Sayers in Bears' starting unit". Nashua Telegraph. Associated Press. November 16, 1968. p. 12.
  14. ^ "Brian Piccolo back in lineup". Fort Scott Tribune. NEA. July 11, 1969. p. 6.
  15. ^ "Brian Piccolo". Retrieved September 24, 2015.
  16. ^ "Chicago Bears History". Retrieved September 24, 2015.
  17. ^ "Bears end famine by routing Steelers". Milwaukee Journal. Associated Press dispatches. November 10, 1969. p. 15, part 2.[permanent dead link]
  18. ^ Sell, Jack (November 10, 1969). "Steelers 'good' for what ails Bears, 38-7". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. 28.
  19. ^ Rollow, Cooper (November 10, 1969). "Bears come out of hibernation". Chicago Tribune. p. 1, section 3.
  20. ^ "Falcons set scoring record of 48 points in rout of Bears". Milwaukee Journal. press dispatches. November 17, 1969. p. 16, part 2.[permanent dead link]
  21. ^ Rollow, Cooper (November 17, 1969). "Bears go back to sleep". Chicago Tribune. p. 1, section 3.
  22. ^ a b Damer, Roy (June 17, 1970). "Bears mourn for a friend". Chicago Tribune. p. 1, section 3.
  23. ^ Brian Piccolo, Chicago Bears Running Back 1965–1969
  24. ^ "Cancer fatal to Piccolo of Bears at 26". Milwaukee Journal. press dispatches. June 16, 1970. p. 13, part 2.[permanent dead link]
  25. ^ "Brian Piccolo is dead at 26". Spokesman-Review. (Spokane, Washington). Associated Press. June 17, 1970. p. 19.
  26. ^ "Piccolo services Friday". Miami News. Associated Press. June 17, 1970. p. 2C.[permanent dead link]
  27. ^ "Campus Life & Leadership". Retrieved September 24, 2015.
  28. ^ "Wake Forest's Hartman Named 2022 Brian Piccolo Award Recipient". November 28, 2022. Retrieved November 28, 2022.
  29. ^ Biggs, Brad (April 24, 2012). "Bears LB Roach wins Piccolo Award". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved December 28, 2012.
  30. ^ "Chicago Bears | Uniform history". Archived from the original on April 7, 2018. Retrieved May 22, 2017.
  31. ^ Murray, Jim (September 16, 1971). "America misses Piccolo". Free Lance-Star. Fredericksburg, Virginia. (Los Angeles Times). p. 11.
  32. ^ "Brian's Song - Rotten Tomatoes". January 22, 2002. Retrieved January 12, 2024.