The Bears on Tuesday honored defensive tackle Akiem Hicks and linebacker Roquan Smith as the 2018 winners of the prestigious Brian Piccolo Award during a ceremony 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 Brian Piccolo, a Bears running back who died from embryonal cell carcinoma on June 16, 1970 at the age of 26.
"I got to learn a little bit about [Piccolo's] story and about the type of man he was," Hicks said. "One thing that stood out to me is that he was a team guy. I was taught at an early age that you go nowhere without the team. I have a lot of respect for this award, for my teammates, and it's just part of the values that I hold and really appreciate it."
Hicks has blossomed into a star over the past three seasons with the Bears. Since signing as a free agent in 2016, he has recorded 163 tackles, 23.0 sacks, five forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries and 38 tackles-for-loss while starting all 48 games.
In 2018, Hicks helped the Bears win the NFC North with a 12-4 record and was voted to his first career Pro Bowl. He led the defense with 12 tackles-for-loss while ranking second with 7.5 sacks, three forced fumbles and 16 quarterback hits.
Hicks recorded a career-high five tackles-for-loss in a November win over the Vikings that gave the Bears sole possession of first place. He also scored a touchdown on a 1-yard run on fourth-and-goal against the Giants, becoming the first Bears defensive lineman to rush for a touchdown since William "Refrigerator" Perry in Super Bowl XX.
Smith, meanwhile, was selected by the Bears with the eighth pick in last year's draft out of Georgia. He topped the defense with 121 tackles, three shy of Hall of Famer Brian Urlacher's team rookie record set in 2000. Smith also registered five sacks, eight tackles-for-loss, one interception and five pass breakups while playing in all 16 games with 15 starts. He added a second interception in the Bears' wild-card playoff loss to the Eagles.
"It means a lot to me knowing what [Piccolo] stood for," Smith said. "Just to get that acknowledgement means a lot to me and I'll forever cherish it."
Bears vice president Patrick McCaskey emceed Tuesday's ceremony. Coach Matt Nagy introduced new defensive coordinator Chuck Pagano and assistant linebackers coach Bill Shuey, who introduced Hicks and Smith, respectively. Ownership was also represented by Virginia McCaskey, George McCaskey and Brian McCaskey. Members of the Piccolo family in attendance included Joy Piccolo O'Connell, Brian Piccolo's widow, and two of their three daughters, Traci and Kristi.
Joy accepted a $50,000 annual donation from the NFL.
Previous winners of the Piccolo Award who were on hand for Tuesday's ceremony included Jim Osborne (1972), Brian Baschnagel (1976) and James Thornton (1988).
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 passed away several months later.
Following his death, the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund was established, and proceeds were sent to the Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York for research on embryonal cell carcinoma. At the time Piccolo died, the disease was 100 percent fatal, but today the cure rate is more than 95 percent.
With that victory, proceeds from the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund now benefit breast cancer research at Rush Medical Center and provide support to the Clearbrook Center for the developmentally disabled in Arlington Heights.
Since turning its attention to the fight against breast cancer, the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, as well as all those who have generously joined in its efforts, has raised over $8 million for research since 1991. The fund remains active and welcomes the interest of contributions of others who share its commitment to breast cancer research and to the memory of Brian Piccolo.