Piccolo Award winners Akiem Hicks, Roquan Smith bullish on DC Chuck Pagano

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Brian Piccolo Award winner Akiem Hicks speaks with the media during a press conference at Halas Hall on Tuesday. Linebacker Roquan Smith was the rookie winner of the Piccolo Award. | Tim Boyle/Chicago Sun-Times via

New Bears defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano has coached defensive end Akiem Hicks for all of nine days, but he still was a fitting choice to introduce him as the veteran winner of the Brian Piccolo Award on Tuesday at Halas Hall.

As a leukemia survivor, Pagano has a healthy appreciation and respect for the meaning of the Piccolo Award, the most hallowed honor one can get at Halas Hall.

‘‘To the Piccolo family, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for your advocacy,’’ Pagano said. ‘‘The Piccolo Fund research saved my life. The form of leukemia that I got back in 2012 . . . because of people who give from their hearts, a couple of scientists [developed] a cocktail that they gave me. And the cure rate went from 50 percent to 90 percent. So what you’re doing with this fund is huge. Very, very grateful for that.’’

Hicks was honored with linebacker Roquan Smith, the rookie winner of the award, which is a team-voted honor that goes to the players who best exemplify the ‘‘courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor’’ of the late Bears running back, who died of cancer at 26 in 1970. Since the inception of the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund in 1970, embryonal cell carcinoma has gone from being 100 percent fatal to having a 95 percent cure rate.

‘‘I got to learn a little bit about [Brian Piccolo’s] story and the type of man that he was,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘One thing that stood out to me is that he’s a team guy. And I was taught at an early age that you go nowhere without the team. So I have a lot of respect for this award, for my teammates, and it’s just part of the values that I hold and really appreciate.’’

With a foundation of superior talent, there’s little doubt intangibles such as teamwork, chemistry and fortitude instilled by defensive coordinator Vic Fangio were huge factors in the success of the Bears’ defense last season. But after Fangio left to become the coach of the Broncos, the defense will be in transition under Pagano.


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‘‘It’s going great,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘It’s tough, and I’ll always have a lot of love for Vic Fangio because of the way he brought me to this organization and allowed me to use my talents to my strengths.

‘‘But it’s a chapter in life, right? He’s moved on, we’ve moved on and you’re happy for the guy. He gets a chance to be a head coach. . . . You’re happy for him, you miss him and you look forward to the next opportunity. I think Chuck is going to do a great job with us.’’

The defensive players are just getting to know Pagano, but early impressions are positive, as expected.

‘‘He’s a great guy,’’ Smith said. ‘‘Great sense of humor. Love him. Love his character, and he comes to work every day with a positive attitude.’’

Pagano has coached in the NFL for 16 seasons, including six seasons as the coach of the Colts. But he knows his job is not to mess too much with a good thing: The Bears led the NFL in fewest points allowed and takeaways in 2018.

‘‘I don’t think it will be a huge transition because football is football,’’ Smith said. ‘‘There’s only so many calls you can run, so many defenses you can be in. So I think it will be an easy transition.’’

‘‘No step back, no step back; we’re always going forward,’’ Hicks said. ‘‘There’s always going to be an adjustment period anytime you have new people in the building. I don’t think we have to take a step back. We just have to hit it harder.’’

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