Bears linebacker Nick Roach and defensive tackle Stephen Paea were presented with 2011 Brian Piccolo Awards during a ceremony Tuesday in the George "Mugs" Halas Auditorium at Halas Hall.
The honor has been given to a Bears rookie since 1970 and was expanded in 1992 to include a veteran. Bears players vote for teammates who best exemplify the courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor of the late Brian Piccolo, a Bears running back who died from embryonal cell carcinoma on June 16, 1970 at the age 26.
Stephen Paea and Nick Roach pose with their Brian Piccolo Awards Tuesday at Halas Hall.
“Every award that’s given is special,” said coach Lovie Smith. “But when you get an award that’s been voted by your teammates, it says even more, especially one that has Brian Piccolo’s name on it.”
In presenting the award to Roach, linebackers coach Bob Babich praised the strongside linebacker for approaching what often can be a thankless job with an unselfish attitude.
“In our scheme, playing the ‘SAM’ linebacker you do not get provided the opportunities to make as many plays as some of the other players in the system statistically,” Babich said. “In spite of the role, Nick’s work ethic and professionalism show just how loyal and dedicated he is to help his teammates and this organization.”
Roach started 15 of 16 games played last season, recording 61 tackles, six tackles-for-loss, three pass breakups and two special teams stops.
In accepting the award, Roach noted the similarities between himself and Piccolo: Both entered the NFL as undrafted free agents, Roach is the same age (26) that Piccolo was when he passed away, and Roach was born on the same date (June 16) that Piccolo died.
“This story kind of hit me hard thinking about who Brian Piccolo was,” Roach said. “Getting all those facts about who he was, it’s a big deal for me to win this, especially being voted by your teammates. It’s a big honor to be up here and accept this.”
In presenting the rookie award to Paea, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli also cited the player’s position.
“He reflects this award,” Marinelli said. “He plays a very demanding position. It’s a cocked nose position inside. It takes great physical toughness to play, but the thing he plays it with also and that we look for is a toughness of mind.”
Marinelli feels that Paea was deserving of the award due to the way the second-round pick dealt with adversity last year as a rookie. After being inactive the first five games of the season, Paea recorded a safety on his second NFL play when he sacked Donovan McNabb in the end zone in a win over the Vikings.
“The thing I appreciate and have great respect for is how he handled himself through all [that],” Marinelli said. “He didn’t pout. [He said:] ‘What can I do to help?’ Sometimes he jumped on the offensive line and tried to give us a better look [in practice]. He never made an excuse. All he [said] was, ‘How do I get better? How do I help this team?’”
Marinelli was also impressed with how Paea took ownership of mistakes he made in a midseason game against the Eagles, especially after getting chastised by coaches during a film session.
“We called him out in front of all of his teammates, and that’s tough,” Marinelli said. “But he came up to me afterwards and said, ‘We’ve worked on that technique every single day, and I have to do that. That’s my job.’ He took full responsibility; no excuses, no explanations, and then he improved the rest of the way.”
Paea appeared in the final 11 games, registering 18 tackles and two sacks. He is the first Bears rookie defensive tackle to win the Piccolo Award since Tommie Harris in 2004.
“I’m blessed and honored to have this award and be part of Chicago Bears history,” Paea said. “My teammates are my brothers. For them to vote for me for this award means the whole world to me.”
Watching how the relationship between Piccolo and teammate Gale Sayers developed in the classic movie ‘Brian’s Song’ had a great impact on Paea.
“How Gale supported him throughout his struggle moved a lot of people, including myself, and I know for sure that my teammates have that type of relationship and friendship and that’s why we’re going to win the Super Bowl this year,” Paea said.
“Again, I am blessed to be a part of the Chicago Bears history with the Piccolo Award and blessed to have coaches and great teammates, and I’m blessed to be a Bear.”
Brian Piccolo joined the Bears in 1965 as an undrafted free agent after leading the nation with 111 points and 1,044 yards rushing as a senior at Wake Forest. He was in his fourth NFL season when a chest x-ray revealed a malignancy. Piccolo died several months later.
When Piccolo died, the disease was 100 percent fatal, but the cure rate today is more than 70 percent.
Proceeds from the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund benefit breast cancer research at Rush Medical Center and the Clearbrook Center for the developmentally disabled in Arlington Heights. The fund has raised more than $8.1 million since 1991.