When Bears running back Brian Piccolo died at 26 of embryonal cell carcinoma 50 years ago Tuesday, a crestfallen George Halas said, ‘‘He was so young to die with a future that held so much for him. But Brian made the most of the brief 26 years allowed to him.”
Then he added, “And he will not be forgotten.”
Even Halas probably didn’t realize how right he would be about that. Fifty years after Piccolo’s death, his legacy as a fun-loving, gritty competitor and great teammate who worked for everything he got in the NFL and exemplified courage is thriving — and remains an inspiration for players who never knew him to be the best they can be.
Shortly after Piccolo’s death, Jeannie Morris’ best-selling book, “Brian Piccolo: A Short Season,” detailed Piccolo’s valiant fight. The Emmy Award-winning movie “Brian’s Song,” which highlighted Piccolo’s friendship with teammate Gale Sayers, remains one of the most acclaimed made-for-TV movies ever.
The Bears did their part. The Brian Piccolo Award honors the Bears rookie and veteran who best exemplify Piccolo’s courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor. The Brian Piccolo Fund has helped raise more than $8 million for cancer research.
“What we’ve been able to accomplish in his name is something that none of us ever dreamed would be possible,” said Traci Piccolo Dolby, one of Brian Piccolo’s three daughters. “He used to joke with our grandma and always say, ‘Grace, one of these days I’m gonna be famous.’ And she’d hit him and say, ‘Oh, Brian.’
“But here we are 50 years later, and for somebody who had to fight every step of the way, the fact that he’s world-renowned — people know him everywhere —that’s an incredible legacy. They know him, not for the kind of football he played, but for the kind of man he was. That’s what is so truly special.
“And his story is something that everyone can relate to — no matter what color, no matter what religion, no matter what. He is one of those people who really is everybody’s person, and we can all aspire to be more like he was.”
Bears matriarch Virginia McCaskey and her family cherish the Piccolo Award, but it was a particularly poignant honor Tuesday, when former Bears defensive tackle Nick Williams (veteran) and running back David Montgomery (rookie) were named the winners on the 50th anniversary of Piccolo’s death.
“While I was in college, I didn’t know anything about the Piccolo Award,” Montgomery said. “As I got here, I started to learn more about it — him and Gale’s relationship. It’s funny that I’m in the position he played . . . in a great spot to honor his name. It’s amazing and humbling to know that me — little old me from Cincinnati, Ohio — a kid that struggled in impoverished situations and didn’t have everything and his family didn’t have a lot of stuff, kind of just made it happen.
“To have my name in the same sentence as Mr. Piccolo . . . it’s definitely a great achievement. I’ll tell my kids [one day] that one of the greatest things to happen to me is receiving this award.”
Williams, who signed with the Lions in free agency, called the award “a huge honor.”
“It exemplifies teamwork, courage, loyalty, dedication and just a sense of humor,” Williams said. “Having a sense of humor is something that stuck with me throughout the locker room. I’ve always cracked jokes with guys and tried to look on the bright side of things. When things may not have been going our way, I tried to lift them up, especially the defensive line room.”
Indeed, Piccolo’s sense of humor was something that carried him in good times and bad. Even as the Bears were going 0-5 in 1969 after he got sick, he never lost it.
‘‘We were playing a game when he was in the hospital, and we all got together and said, ‘Let’s get this one for Brian.’ And we lost the game,’’ former Bears linebacker Doug Buffone said years ago. ‘‘We go to the hospital, and Brian said, ‘Where’s the win? Can’t you guys do anything right?’
‘‘Not that we were a good team, but you would think you could rise to the occasion that one time. That’s why it was funny [at the hospital]. Brian took the edge off it. That’s the kind of guy he was.’’