Given what's been transpiring throughout the country, winning the Brian Piccolo Award was extra special for Bears running back David Montgomery.
Piccolo passed away June 16, 1970—50 years ago Tuesday—at the age of 26 due to embryonal cell carcinoma after playing four seasons as a running back and fullback with the Bears. His close friendship with Hall of Fame teammate Gale Sayers was immortalized in the classic TV movie, "Brian's Song," in 1971.
At the suggestion of longtime Bears executive Ed McCaskey, Piccolo and Sayers began rooming together on the road in 1967, becoming the NFL's first interracial roommates during a time when race riots were occurring across the nation. More than 50 years later, the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a white Minneapolis police officer, has spawned widespread protests against racial injustice and police brutality.
"It's amazing and it's humbling to know that little old me from Cincinnati, Ohio, a kid that struggled in impoverished situations and who didn't have everything and his family didn't have a lot of stuff, kind of just made it happen," Montgomery said Tuesday on a video call with the media announcing that he and veteran defensive tackle Nick Williams had won 2019 Piccolo Awards.
"To have my name in the same sentence as Mr. Piccolo, I kind of sit back and reminisce over it because it's definitely a great honor and achievement that when I get to grow up and tell my kids one of the greatest things that's happened to me is going to be receiving this award.
"As you look into the stuff that's happening today and everyday situations—through the police brutality and the racial accusations all over—we kind have just got to look back and understand that there are good people out there. Two opposites can attract. Diversity is nothing but a mirror thought or a mirror 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, and they taught me how to be that, and I was able to receive this award."
The Bears have presented Piccolo Awards to a rookie since 1970 and expanded it to also include a veteran beginning in 1992. Bears players vote for teammates who best exemplify Piccolo's courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor.
The Piccolo Awards are typically presented at Halas Hall on the Tuesday before the NFL Draft in late April. But this year's ceremony was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Also on Tuesday's call were Piccolo's widow, Joy, and their daughters Lori, Traci and Kristi.
People in today's world who don't believe in racial equality could learn a lot from how Piccolo lived his life and the bond he shared with Sayers.
"He loved people and I believe he was a unifier," Joy said. "He didn't see black or white. He was very, very comfortable when Ed McCaskey suggested he would be Gale's roommate. It wasn't an issue. And we need more of that today, we truly do."
"It's just so important to see people as people, as who they are," added Traci, Piccolo's middle daughter. "Their color should never matter."
"One of the things that I think about with him too is just the importance of listening to people," said Piccolo's oldest daughter, Lori, "and understanding their stories and where they're coming from, even if your experience isn't the same experience that that person has.
"It doesn't make their experience any less valid, so I think when my mom talks about how much he loved people, I think that was part of it. He loved being in those conversations. He loved hearing about who they were, where they were coming from, what they were concerned about, what they cared about.
"And I think that is something that we are sorely lacking today. People come down on one side of an issue or another side of an issue and they don't hear what the other side is saying, and they don't engage. And I think that's something that's really important and something that we could carry forward certainly now more than ever."