When Brian Piccolo died of embryonic cell carcinoma at 26 in June 1970, he left behind a wife and three little girls. At 4½ years, I was the oldest. My sisters and I didn’t go to the funeral, where Sayers and Dick Butkus were among his pallbearers; Mom thought it was better if we stayed at my grandmother’s that day.
The movie “Brian’s Song” came out the next year. The touching story of the friendship between Dad and Gale Sayers remains one of the most popular sports movies of all time, “one of the great guy-cry flicks,” someone once wrote.
I wouldn’t see the film until my junior year of high school. After that, I would never watch it again. Even now, I can’t hear the theme song without crying. I still think about him every day.
I don’t remember when I first met Gale Sayers, but it was probably one of the times when he and his then-wife, Linda, had us over to dinner at their house. Dad always seemed to be laughing.
It wasn’t long after my father’s death that I began to learn of his courage, what he meant to people and, really, what he and Gale Sayers represented at the time.
Players were still segregated by race for hotel room assignments. The Bears’ players changed that, asking to be reassigned by position instead. Running back was the only position on the team at the time with one Black and one White player: Gale Sayers, the first-round draft pick nicknamed the “Kansas Comet,” and my father, the undrafted free agent from Wake Forest.
They roomed and bonded together during the civil rights movement and so much social upheaval in the late 1960s. I look at their relationship now and think how much we could learn from them. Their message about racial unity is as old as it is relevant — especially today, when some of our leaders foster hate and division instead of love and tolerance.
In a way, they were destined to be roommates.
During my father’s junior year at Wake Forest in 1963, Maryland’s Darryl Hill was the only African American football player in the ACC. A former Maryland assistant coach called Wake Forest “the worst atmosphere” of any campus Maryland visited that season.
I later learned my father, after a game against Maryland, went over to the opponents’ sideline, walked Hill over to the area in front of the Wake Forest student section and put his arm around him. The crowd quieted.
I also attended Wake Forest. It became a special place for me, another genuine connection to my father. They still honor him in many ways. When I attended, they showed “Brian’s Song” to all the incoming freshmen. I didn’t go.
After my dad died, we moved out of our house in Beverly, Ill., and stayed with different relatives before moving into a smaller home in Deerfield. My mother remarried a man strong enough to deal with three growing girls and the legend and legacy of her first husband.
My family still has Bears season tickets, and my mom and sisters still go to the games. There is still nothing like Soldier Field.
The month before my father’s death, Gale Sayers accepted the George S. Halas Award for most courageous player and told the crowd they had selected the wrong person for the award, that it was “my award today and Brian Piccolo’s tomorrow.” We still have the trophy. It sits in the home office of my sister and her husband outside Chicago.
I have spent most of my adult life working for nonprofits in Washington. I know my dad influenced the person I became because, well, I still love a good protest. He was unforgettable to so many.
The cancer foundation in his name had an annual golf tournament. Then a fun run was added. There were always anniversaries, people coming up to us over the years, telling us how special Dad remains in their hearts. When my daughter went to hear Stacey Abrams speak while in college in Georgia, one of her friends’ mothers came up to her and said, “I can’t believe I’m sitting next to the granddaughter of Brian Piccolo.”
So it continues.
Their memories are such blessings. But there is also this grief, this quiet mourning, that will always be there. They’re reminders that I never had my father in my life growing up. I learned more about him in death than in life.
I don’t remember the last time I saw Gale Sayers. But he will always be a part of me, always someone important to my life. His spirit. His kindness. And his emotional speech at that awards ceremony my father was too sick to attend five decades ago — the one Billy Dee Williams replicated for the movie, the one that brings the tears: “I love Brian Piccolo, and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight, when you hit your knees to pray, please ask God to love him, too.”
Please ask God to love Gale Sayers. Fifty years later, he and my father are together again.
Lori Piccolo is the executive director of Institutional Partnerships at the Catholic University of America in Washington. Mike Wise, a former Post sports columnist, is an author and the host of “The Mike Wise Show.”