When Joy Piccolo O'Connell arrived at Halas Hall Thursday and looked out onto the practice field for the first time, she could hardly believe her eyes.
In honor of her late husband, former running back Brian Piccolo, every single player on the Bears roster was wearing a No. 41 jersey.
"It just blew me away, it really did," she said. "It means a great deal to all of us. It's just a very special tribute, it really is."
Thursday marked the 52nd anniversary of Piccolo's passing from embryonal cell carcinoma at the age of 26. The Bears commemorated the occasion by welcoming nearly 20 members of the Piccolo family to their final minicamp practice. The group included all three of Brian and Joy's daughters, Lori, Traci and Kristi.
The Bears originally intended to honor the Piccolo family on the 50th anniversary of Brian's passing in 2020, but that gathering was postponed due to COVID-19.
"It's just really special for all of us that the Bears continue to honor him the way they do," Traci said. "It just makes us feel so good."
Piccolo signed with the Bears in 1965 as an undrafted free agent from Wake Forest. After spending his rookie season on the taxi squad (now known as the practice squad), he contributed primarily on special teams in 1966. Piccolo backed up Gale Sayers in 1967 and then replaced the Hall of Fame running back midway through the 1968 campaign after Sayers sustained a season-ending knee injury.
On Nov. 16, 1969, Piccolo took himself out of a game against the Falcons in Atlanta because he was having difficulty breathing. It was the final time he would step on an NFL field. A few days later, he visited Illinois Masonic Hospital to take a chest x-ray and was diagnosed with cancer.
Piccolo underwent a four-and-a-half hour surgery to remove a malignant tumor in his chest that was the size of a grapefruit. He passed away seven months later, leaving behind Joy and three young daughters ages 4, 3 and 1.
Special bond remains as strong as ever
As evidenced by Thursday's visit, the close bond between the Piccolo and McCaskey families that was born more than 50 years ago remains incredibly strong.
"It's really special when I think about everything that the family has done for my family and how much they supported my mom when my dad was sick," Lori said. "My mom has said she never saw a bill for his treatment. Whatever they needed, they got. The way that Papa Bear (George Halas) supported our family was wonderful. He made sure that we—three little girls who were left behind—had everything we needed.
"And then to walk in here today, it took me a minute for my brain to register what I was actually looking at on the field, and then I got teary. I feel like it doesn't matter how much time passes, it continues to be a really special strong bond between the McCaskeys and our family. It means the world to us."
That bond is especially strong between Joy and Virginia McCaskey.
"I met her a long time ago and we've remained good friends," Joy said. "She's like a mother to me. She's right there when I call for advice."
Ed McCaskey, the late husband of Virginia McCaskey, developed a friendship with Piccolo shortly after he joined the Bears in 1965. When Piccolo was receiving treatment for his illness at a hospital in New York City, Ed was a regular visitor. In addition, Halas called for daily updates and Joy was able to stay with friends of Ed and Virginia instead of having to check into a hotel.
"It was incredible," Joy said. "Coach Halas would call every night to see how everything was going. And then we always had Ed, who was there as much as he possibly could. They sort of guided me through everything I was supposed to be doing and had to do. It was just a comforting and strange feeling knowing you could just call coach Halas. He was very warm and caring. I think back about how lucky we were that he found Brian and brought him on board."
Piccolo's legacy an incredible one
Five decades after his death, Piccolo's legacy remains significant. It includes a cancer research fund and awards presented by the Bears and the ACC in his name.
The Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund was created in 1970 shortly after his death by family, friends and members of the Bears organization, with money raised initially to fight embryonal cell carcinoma. At the time Piccolo died, the disease was 100 percent fatal. But significant advances were made in the 1970s and '80s and today the cure rate is more than 95 percent.
With that victory, proceeds from the fund were redirected in 1991 to benefit breast cancer research at Rush Medical Center in Chicago and provide support to the Clearbrook Center for the developmentally disabled in Arlington Heights.
“It’s just really special for all of us that the Bears continue to honor him the way they do. It just makes us feel so good.” -Traci Piccolo Dolby on her father, Brian Piccolo
At Wake Forest, students conduct an annual Brian Piccolo Cancer Fund Drive, his No. 31 jersey is retired and there's a dormitory named after him. Other facilities that bear Piccolo's name include the St. Thomas Aquinas High School football stadium in south Florida, an elementary school on the West Side of Chicago, and parks in Chicago and in Cooper City, Fla., which is near Fort Lauderdale.
Since Piccolo's death, more than $13 million has been raised for cancer research in his name—about $10 million by the Brian Piccolo Research Fund and over $3 million by Wake Forest.
"It's incredible, it really is," Lori said. "When you think about somebody who died at 26, to have someone who made that kind of impact on the world and have so many people who loved him and cared about him and wanted to make sure that what happened to him never happened to anyone else again, that's incredible to me.
"That people rallied like that, organized all the fundraisers through the years. That the Bears organization was in from the get-go in terms of supporting everything that we did, it's just incredible to me to think that that is one of his lasting legacies. What an incredible tribute to him."
Eberflus pays tribute to Piccolo
Bears coach Matt Eberflus spoke about Piccolo's courage in a team meeting Thursday and later told reporters that having every player wear No. 41 was to "honor the legacy and family of Brian Piccolo."
"That to me was really the main message," Eberflus said. "For people or anybody, you go back so far and it's hard sometimes for them to see the impact of Brian Piccolo that he had in the late '60s. He was really a good teammate and he liked to have fun with his teammates. He liked to play practical jokes on them and stuff like that. Just a real man and a real person and a Chicago Bear. So, I wanted to make sure they got that message."
Next to Eberflus during the coach's press conference was the 1969 George Halas Courage Award that Sayers was presented at a banquet in New York. In a scene immortalized in the classic movie "Brian's Song," an emotional Sayers famously tells attendees: "You flatter me by giving me this award. But I tell you here and now that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. Brian Piccolo is the man of courage who should receive the award. It is mine tonight. It is Brian Piccolo's tomorrow."
Sayers taped Piccolo's name over his own on the trophy and gave it to his friend in his hospital room. Three weeks later, Piccolo passed away.
Daughters relish heart-warming stories
For Lori, Traci and Kristi, stories like that they frequently hear about their father put a smile on their faces and a tear in their eyes.
"If I don't physically have him, it means so much to be able to think about him and be reminded about him," Kristi said. "It happens a lot and it's very special. I didn't know him in the way that so many people did. But I think he would be so honored and humbled to think that this is still happening after all those years, and even today seeing all those 41s out there, I can't imagine what he would have thought."
"We lost him when we were so little … 4, 3 and 1," Lori said. "So to have all these tributes and to have all these stories that people share with us really helps fill in our own memories. On the one hand it's sad that we learn more about him in death than we did in life, but the fact that we have the opportunity to do that is just invaluable."
Traci chuckles when she relates a story about how her father used to tell Joy's mother that one day he'd be famous.
"We still laugh about that to this day because I don't even think he even had any idea how true those words would be," Traci said. "It really is overwhelming, for a 26-year-old who really didn't have much of a football legacy to speak of, to get that support that we all still get because of him speaks volumes to the kind of person that he was, and in the end, that's really what matters."