LAKE FOREST – Tuesday marked the 50th anniversary of the death of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo, and the all time sports classic, "Brian’s Song" starring James Caan, Billy Dee Williams and Jack Warden as “Papa Bear,” George Halas first aired as a made-for-TV movie on ABC in 1971.
Piccolo’s life and death were remarkable not just because of who he was and his limitless character and heroic attitude in the face of a heinous disease, testicular cancer which took his life in 1970 at the age of 26, but also because of his loving relationship with his best friend, Bears Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers who were the first inter-racial roommates in NFL history.
That the ground-breaking nature of that relationship in the mid-‘60’s still rings so completely relevant in the seas that have roiled not just the NFL but the entire country and world over the last few weeks seems to make this anniversary that much more relevant and poignant.
The team marked the occasion with the announcement that the 2019 winners of the Piccolo Award given to one veteran Bear and one rookie are Nick Williams – now a Detroit Lion – and David Montgomery.
The best way to sum up all this award is intended to represent is to quote Sayers from a scene that is portrayed in the movie when he went to New York on May 25, 1970 to accept the Pro Football Writers George Halas Award given annually to the NFL’s most courageous player.
With Piccolo at home on his death bed, in front of a packed but hushed ballroom Sayers stepped to the podium and said, ". . . He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent- cancer.
“He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' twenty-four hours a day, every day of his life.
“You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo's tomorrow. . .
“I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."
His wife Joy and daughters Lori, Traci and Kristi survived Piccolo, and together they joined with the Bears organization to create the award and use it as a vehicle to raise tens of millions of dollars over the years to aid in the fight against cancer.
Williams, now a Lion did not attend the Tuesday press conference but Montgomery visited with media from the parking lot of the field where he was preparing to join some teammates at today’s informal workout organized by Mitch Trubisky.
“I just want to thank you, first and foremost, I want to thank you guys for giving me this honor, to be able to receive such a prestigious award," Montgomery said. “And just to be able to be nominated by my teammates to allow them to know that I have high character and I’m here for each and every one of them on and off the field.
“I just want to let you all know that I’m grateful and I’m thankful to receive this award and let everyone know that I can carry the torch.”
Montgomery went on to expand on his gratitude for receiving the award and how he sees it relevance impacting all of us today.
“As you look into the stuff that’s happening today and everyday situations, through the police brutality and the racial accusations all over, we kinda’ just gotta’ look back and understand that there’s good people out there.
“Two opposites can attract, diversity is nothing but a mirrored thought or a mirrored image, there’s nothing color-based, it shouldn’t be controlled by the pigment of your skin.
“To be able to see that Mr. Gale and Mr. Piccolo were great roommates — and beyond that great friends and great human beings — is what I want to be able to tell my kids, that I was like that, they taught me how to be that, and I was able to receive this award.”
It certainly sounds like Montgomery’s teammates found the right guy for the moment.