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On This Date in Sports June 16, 1970: Brian's Song

in collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

 

Brian Piccolo loses his battle with cancer. The Chicago Bears running back was diagnosed with lung cancer in the middle of the 1969 season. Cancer would prove to be aggressive as it reappeared after his initial treatment. Brian Piccolo was just 26 years old. His struggles and friendship with Gayle Sayers would later be portrayed in an award-winning television movie entitled “Brian’s Song.”

Brian Piccolo was born on October 31, 1943, in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Raised in Fort Lauderdale, Piccolo was the star running back on his high school team. Playing at Wake Forrest, Brian Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring and was named ACC Player of the Year in 1964. Despite his success, Piccolo was not drafted by either the NFL or AFL. After a tryout, Brian Piccolo would sign with the Chicago Bears. 

When Brian Piccolo was in training camp, the Bears assigned roommates by position. In a time where racial segregation still existed in many places, Piccolo, a while man was assigned to room with Gayle Sayers, an African-American. The two would strike up a friendship as Piccolo was on the Bears practice squad in 1965, while Sayers was named Rookie of the Year. Sayers had his best season in 1966, leading the NFL in rushing, while Brian Piccolo played special teams. Brian Piccolo got more playing time over the next two seasons Gale Sayers meanwhile suffered a devastating knee injury in 1968. Without Sayers, Piccolo had his finest season rushing for 450 yards. Over the next year, the two worked out together as Gayle Sayers rehabbed his knee.  

The 1969 season was the worst season in the history of the Chicago Bears, as they posted a record of 1-13. Despite the struggles, Gayle Sayers was back to being the top running back in the NFL, leading the league with 1,032 yards. Brian Piccolo was seeing regular action, despite battling a persistent cough from the early part of the season. The Bears earned their only win of the season on November 9th, beating the Pittsburgh Steelers 38-7. The Steelers also went 1-13, having their worst season in 1969. In that game Brian Piccolo scored a touchdown a week later he also scored against the Atlanta Falcons but returned to the sideline unable to breathe. 

After returning to Chicago, Brian Piccolo underwent a medical examination where an embryonal cell carcinoma was discovered one of his lungs. Brian Piccolo would go to New York’s Sloan-Kettering Hospital. Sloan-Kettering known for its cancer treatment removed the tumor and began chemo treatments, beginning an eight-month ordeal. Every time it seemed he was getting better; aggressive cancer attacked the young Piccolo again. In April Brian Piccolo had a lung removed, as none of the treatments were working. 

As Brian Piccolo battled cancer in, Gayle Sayers accepted an award at a banquette in Chicago, giving an emotional speech for his ailing roommate. Sayers, battling tears famous 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."   

Prayers and treatment would not be enough to save Brian Piccolo as cancer continued to spread through his body. The end would come on the morning of June 16, 1970. Three days later, Gayer Sayers, Dick Butkus, and four other teammates served as pallbearers as Brian Piccolo was buried near Chicago. Despite hardly being an All-Pro, the Bears would retire #41 in honor of Piccolo. 

The story of Brian Piccolo’s friendship would be the inspiration for a television movie, entitled “Brian’s Song”. The movie, starring Billy Dee Williams as Gayle Sayers and James Caan as Brian Piccolo would earn four Emmy Awards, including Best Television Movie. It was also voted as one most likely movies that make men cry.