Many of us became aware of Brian Piccolo’s story through the TV film Brian’s Song, released in 1971. In it, we became acquainted with an underdog who never gave up, for whom “quit” was never in his vocabulary, and who was a sports pioneer in Civil Rights. However, when you learn more about Piccolo, you find that the man we came to love in the movie did so much more and left a legacy that reaches well beyond football.
Piccolo was born in Massachusetts in 1943, but his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he was only three years old. He later attended Central Catholic High School and lettered in four sports, graduating in 1961. Even with impressive high school stats, Piccolo was overshadowed locally by future NFL’er Tucker Frederickson, who played for cross-town rival South Broward High.
Piccolo had scholarship offers from two schools, Wake Forest and Wichita State. He opted for Wake. In his time there, he led the perennial loser Deacons to their best record in years in his senior season, as well as an ACC Championship. That year Piccolo led the NCAA in rushing, the ACC in scoring, and was named the ACC Conference Player of the Year.
Perhaps Piccolo’s most notable moment at Wake Forest was something that showed in no record book or any highlight reel. Conference rival the University of Maryland, primarily through Assistant Coach Lee Corso’s efforts, had broken the ACC color barrier in 1962 when they signed Darryl Hill to play football. Hill became the first black player at any major Southern Conference. He was greeted cruelly in most stadiums in the Conference, even having opposing teams refuse to play against him. Chants of “Kill Hill” echoed through many stadiums. Games were delayed as protesting fans rushed fields. Some schools had needed National Guard units to maintain order. Hill’s mother had been refused entry into the stadium at Clemson. At the invitation of the University’s President, Robert C. Edwards, she was finally allowed to join him in his private box.
On October 26, 1963, the Terps were set to play an away game at Wake Forest. The reception there was similar to what Hill had experienced elsewhere. The crowd greeted Hill with loud booing and taunting with the all too familiar chants of “Kill Hill” during warmups. Piccolo, who was by then a star and highly respected by the Deacon fans, walked over to Hill, placed his arm around him, and said, “I want to apologize for the behavior of my fans,” The two then walked together to the front of the catcalling student section. He made the hand symbol for time out, the boos immediately quieted, and the game went on. Hill scored two touchdowns that day in a 32-0 Maryland victory.
Between the 1963 and 1964 seasons, Wake Forest was without a head coach. Piccolo and his classmate, John Mackovic, began recruiting black players to join the Wake Forest team. Thanks to their efforts, in 1964, the first three black student-athletes entered Wake Forest.
Despite his amazing college statistics, Piccolo was not chosen in the NFL draft, primarily because of his small size. The Bears signed him as a free agent, but he spent his first year on the taxi squad and sidelined with an injury. The following year, the Bears drafted Gale Sayers, who Brian played behind at halfback. In his third season, he moved to fullback and played alongside Sayers. In the 1968 season, Sayers was injured, and Piccolo moved into his spot. When Sayers returned in 1969, Brian was again relegated to a backup role. Late in that season, Piccolo removed himself from a game in Atlanta because of chest pains, and that soon led to the diagnosis of cancer that was to take his life on June 16, 1970.