On May 25th, 1970 Brian Piccolo and his wife Joy were still settling back into their home on Hunt Place in Chicago. Another harsh Midwestern winter had given way to the miracle of spring. The grass was newly green. Tulips were now blooming in front of the house.
They planned on spending a week at home resting, then flying to Atlanta to visit their daughters for the first time in nine weeks. The children had been staying at their grandparents while Brian continued his fight against embryonal cell carcinoma. Cancer.
What the Piccolos did not know was what Gale Sayers was planning for that very night back in New York.
The pro football writers had voted to give the 1969 George S. Halas Courage Award to Sayers for his remarkable comeback from a devastating knee injury in 1968 to lead the NFL in rushing in '69, having been the only 1000 yard rusher in the NFL that year. The newly formed award was only being given for the second time. Joe Namath won the inaugural trophy just a year earlier.
In a twist of irony, Sayers has always given Brian much of the credit for his comeback. It was Piccolo who prodded and pushed Gale during his exhaustive rehabilitation in the offseason leading into 1969. So, needless to say, the award had double the meaning for Gale.
And he was about to make it the most meaningful award ever given to an NFL player. And he was about to do that at the Americana Hotel in New York City. Not too far from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. A place Brian had become all too familiar with.
At the Americana, the festivities were ramping up and Gale Sayers was displaying his usual stoicism. He had never been known for flare. But the people in that room, on that night, were about to get hit. Hard. By words. Right in the heart.
When it came time to receive the award, Gale strolled confidently up to the stage, speech in hand. He didn't need it though. He knew exactly what he was going to say. Below is an excerpt from that speech:
"...He has the heart of a giant and that rare form of courage that allows him to kid himself and his opponent- cancer. He has the mental attitude that makes me proud to have a friend who spells out the word 'courage' twenty-four hours a day, every day of his life. You flatter me by giving me this award, but I tell you that I accept it for Brian Piccolo. It is mine tonight, it is Brian Piccolo's tomorrow... I love Brian Piccolo, and I'd like all of you to love him too. Tonight, when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him."
Brian's doctor at Memorial, Dr. Edward Beattie was in the room for the speech. He was seated next to Bears President Ed McCaskey. They both cried. As did virtually everyone in the banquet hall that night. A short time after Gale's speech, Vince Lombardi came up to him with the remnants of tears still in his eyes. "Gale", he said. "You are a great American."
Of course the speech was memorialized later in the made-for-television movie "Brian's Song". To this day I can't watch it without tears. I am sure I'm not alone in that statement.
Some of this article was researched with the Brian Piccolo biography by Jeannie Morris titled "A Short Season". I invite you to pick it up. It's a great read. Just make sure you have a box of tissues handy.
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