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Classic Brian Piccolo

Piccolo became symbol of courage

Reel Classics: 'Diggstown'

Wednesday, November 19, 2003
Courageous Piccolo never lost hope
By Gale Sayers with Al Silverman
From "I am Third"

Editor's note: In 1970, Gale Sayers wrote "I am Third," an autobiography of his football career. Sayers' story of his friendship with teammate Brian Piccolo drew immediate attention. Their friendship blossomed in 1967 when they became the first integrated roommates on the Chicago Bears. Their friendship grew closer when Sayers fought to return to the NFL from knee surgery, while Piccolo faced a more serious opponent -- cancer. Piccolo lost his struggle with cancer in July of 1970. The film "Brian's Song," recounting Sayers' and Piccolo's friendship was released in 1971. ABC will debut a remake of the popular TV movie on December 2. Penguin Books has reissued "I am Third" and what follows is an excerpt from the new edition.

It happened that I have the same blood as Pick -- B positive -- so I gave a pint. A couple of days later, just before he was to undergo his second operation, he was telling friends about how Gale Sayers had given him blood.

"I don't know what it is," he said, "but lately I've gotten an awful craving for chitlins."

As much as they cut into this man, as much as he was inflicted with terrible pain and discomfort, as much as he suffered because of this wicked disease that struck him like a thunderbolt flashing out of a clear sky as much as he was faced with all these tortures, his spirit would not be destroyed. That was the beautiful nature of Brian Piccolo.

There was a time, just before he went into the hospital again, then he sat down at home and wrote a letter to Freddy Steinmark of the University of Texas. Steinmark had played on Texas's 1969 national championship football team. Just after the season they discovered that Steinmark had bone cancer. They amputated his leg. And Pick sat down and wrote him a letter. I asked him what he said to the boy.

"I told him that I, more than any other football player, understood a few things that must have gone through his mind. Because I had gone through the same thing. I told him never to lose courage and to remember that there was always hope."

At the end of May I came into New York to attend the Professional Football Writers annual dinner and receive the George S. Halas award as the most courageous player in pro football. I had wanted Brian to attend with me if he was strong enough, but the day I arrived in New York was the day Brian and Joy left the hospital to go back home. He had finished a series of cobalt treatments and the doctors said he could spend a few weeks at home, then return to the hospital for more treatment.

One reason I wanted Brian with me at the banquet was that I intended to give him the trophy right there. But at least I was able to tell the audience something about Brian Piccolo.

"He has the heart of a giant, " I said, "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 of his life."

I concluded by saying, "You flatter me by giving me this award but I can tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the George S. Halas award. Mine is 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 "

From "I am Third" by Gale Sayers with Al Silverman. Copyright Gale Sayers and Al Silverman 1970 and 2001. Reprinted by permission of Penguin Press.

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