For those sports fans of a certain age, one of the first times we can ever remember being touched by a made for television movie was on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving 1971 when Billy Dee Williams, James Caan and an incredibly talented group of actors and actresses starred in a movie about a former Chicago Bear player who had succumbed to cancer the previous year at age 26.
If you were an avid reader, you first heard of Brian Piccolo’s story through reading Gale Sayers’ emotional recounting in his autobiography: I Am Third. From reading those pages, it was obvious, even to someone as young as I was then, how much love Sayers had in his heart for his recently departed friend. I even remember reading in the old “Sport” magazine about a month before the movie that it would include cameos from many current members of the Bears, adding to the authenticity.
Now understand, Piccolo was a fairly typical NFL running back at the time. He had led the NCAA in rushing and scoring as a senior at Wake Forest in 1964 and was not even drafted by an NFL team but did make the Bears as a free agent. A few years later Piccolo replaced Sayers in the starting lineup after Kermit Alexander made a clean tackle which destroyed Sayers’ knee and forced him into very heavy rehab. A great deal of the movie centered on their companionship during the 1968-69 off season. The rehab went well as Sayers won the 1969 NFL rushing title.
However, tragedy hit Piccolo during that season as he was diagnosed with what turned out to be a fast moving cancer. He died in June of 1970. With the publicity generated after Sayers’ speech (shown here in the movie) and then the follow up books, I would wager very few men women or children got through that scene without crying.
And for those of us who were following football, there are very few Piccolo items available from his career. The most notable is the 1969 Topps Rookie Card, which has his first name spelled incorrectly.on both the front and the back. Because of the story behind it, the card is popular and valued well above a common (you can see them on eBay here). Piccolo also appears on the 4-in-1 insert set that year.
Even with those horrible spellings, this is a great card of a man who left us way too soon.
And by the way, if you have never seen the original movie from 1971, treat yourself and see the great cast in one of the very best made for TV movies ever.
Rich Klein can be reached at [email protected]