When Bears running back Brian Piccolo was battling cancer that would ultimately end his life on June 16, 1970, he collaborated with Chicago sportscaster Jeannie Morris on a book about his life and his struggle with the disease.
Morris completed the project shortly after Piccolo passed away, and "Brian Piccolo: A Short Season" was published in 1971. In conjunction with the 50th anniversary of his death—which is Tuesday—the book is being reprinted and will be part of Bears Care's "All Four One" fundraising campaign, which pays tribute to Piccolo's No. 41 jersey that's been retired by the Bears.
Donations will ultimately benefit the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund and help establish a systematic approach to breast cancer screening that determines the type, frequency and follow-up necessary to improve early detection, especially for young women at high risk for the disease.
Donors who contribute at the $60 level and above to Bears Care will receive a limited edition 2020 reprint of "A Short Season."
Click here to donate.
The following excerpt is the introduction to the book written by Morris:
Tragedy is implicit in any tale of an athlete dying young, but the uniqueness of Brian Piccolo's story is that while it is sad and sometimes brutal, it is also warm, funny and life-affirming—like Piccolo himself.
Pic embodied the pure form of a rare breed of men, the American professional football player. A Chicago Bear running back of marginal talent but limitless spirit, Pic loved his game and on his smiling face wore the gratitude he felt for the life pro football had provided to him and his family.
In the years since Piccolo's death from a deadly cancer the world has become a different place. A fast-moving technological revolution has affected most professions. Yet while rules have been refreshed, data influences game plans and I-pads have replaced clip boards, Brian's story retains its freshness because there have been no essential changes in professional football – the same tough men play the same tough game.
But it is the humor and courage displayed by Piccolo in the bleak face of ultimate loss that gives his story its timeless quality.
Pic lived for 26 years and died in 1970 leaving a wife, three little girls and a legion of friends who, to this day, smile every time they think about Brian Piccolo.
I am one of those friends.
It is impossible to know how deeply Brian was devastated when in the midst of his fifth year in the National Football League, he was told that the life he'd finally achieved and so savored was threatened by cancer. By the time his friends and teammates were reunited with Pic following his first surgery Brian's spirit had reasserted itself, his wit kicked in and cancer was now the opponent.
"You can't quit," he would say, "it's a League rule."
Brian's was to be a short, hard fought battle. Seeking the best possible treatment at the time, the Chicago Bears sent him to Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. There, beaten down by surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, Brian became uncharacteristically lonely and morose. Every time I spoke to her, Joy would tell me Pic's biggest problem was boredom.
Back in Chicago, the Piccolos' grievous situation haunted the hearts of their young friends. Stripped of spirit, the Bears lost 13 of 14 games. One morning after season's end, my thoughts turned, not unusually, to Brian and Joy. Impulsively, I picked up the telephone and called Pic in his New York hospital room. "Brian," I said, tentatively, "you should write a book."
I was prepared for one of Pic's withering, sarcastic responses. Gale Sayers, Piccolo's roommate on road trips, had told me Brian had been unmerciful when Gale agreed to do a book with New York writer Al Silverman.
"You're gonna write your autobiography at 26? You haven't even lived yet," Pic had chided Gale. But what Brian said to me that morning, very quietly, was, "I've been thinking about writing something."
I had no idea how to help Brian write a book, but it didn't matter. What mattered was to get Brian busy, let him perform again, take his mind away from the torturous treatment. I bought a tape recorder and traveled to New York on weekends. Brian and I visited only four times before he died in June of 1970. When, finally, I brought myself to listen to the tapes, all I could do was cry. Joy asked if I thought I could "finish Brian's book?" I didn't know if that was possible but, I thought, at least I could tell a story for Lori, Traci and Kristi who were four, three and one at the time and would barely remember their father.
Brian Piccolo was a second string NFL running back who lived his dream for less than five full seasons. When Joy worried about their future, Brian teased her. "Don't worry, honey," he would say, "you can live forever on my name." It was Pic's typical, self-deprecating humor—but in it dwelt a hint of prophecy.
The proceeds from the original hardback edition of this book and the sale of the first paperback rights were divided between Joy and her daughters and the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, created by Ed McCaskey and the Chicago Bears and supported over the years by the players of the National Football League. With the use of these funds, scientists at Sloan Kettering embarked upon an effort to destroy Brian Piccolo's then fatal disease, embryonal cell carcinoma. That cancer, which strikes young men and killed virtually all of its victims in 1970, by 1991 had a 95 percent cure rate.
Brian's friends, led by Joy, the organization Bears Care and the NFL have now turned to a new challenge and this time the opponent is breast cancer. Today, with the help of his old pals and teammates, Pic is still fighting and all proceeds from this 4th edition of A Short Season will go to the Piccolo Fund to defeat breast cancer now headquartered at Rush-Presbyterian-St.Lukes Medical Center in Chicago.
Brian Piccolo, who started only a handful of games in his professional football career and never wore a championship ring, is the star of a winning team. It is the living Piccolo spirit that drives this effort — and it's safe to say Pic would be proud.
On the 50th anniversary of Brian Piccolo's passing, ChicagoBears.com gathers archived photos from the running back's professional football career.