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Brian Piccolo And His Backstory

It was in a restaurant with several TVs showing sports. There was no sound, but we knew instantly when we saw Chicago Bears uniforms and a shot of actor James Caan that this was a piece about Pic, and the old film “Brian’s Song.” It is a story that comes around every football season, and loses little of its poignancy with the years. The film, made for TV, has proved one of the most enduring works in that category.

Pic was the nickname his friends had for Brian Piccolo, who grew up in Fort Lauderdale, starred for what is now St. Thomas Aquinas High and Wake Forest and died at age 26 when playing for the Bears. The film is about his close interracial friendship with his roommate Gale Sayers, the Bears’ legendary halfback who had suffered a knee injury that would cut short a brilliant career.  The central theme, of course, was the early death of Piccolo from a rare form of cancer in 1970.

We heard a lot about Brian Piccolo when we arrived in town in 1971. He had been dead just a year. We hung out in Nick’s Lounge on Sunrise Boulevard a few years later, and a number of guys from the Piccolo era were patrons. Among them Bill Thies, Ed Trombetta and Bill Bondurant—all former athletes at Central Catholic before it changed its name to St. Thomas Aquinas. Over the years, we realized there was a back story to Brian Piccolo’s  life in Fort Lauderdale: the unusual teammates he had in high school.

In the mid-1980s, we came to know  that story better when we wrote a piece for Sunshine, the Sun-Sentinel’s Sunday magazine at the time. It was a story that wrote itself. By phone we interviewed Ed McCaskey, whose family owned the Chicago Bears. He got us in touch with Gale Sayers, who modestly said Brian Piccolo had kept the name Gale Sayers alive. We spoke to Piccolo’s widow, Joy, a high school sweetheart by whom he had three daughters, and his high school coach, Jim Kurth. We even got input from the cancer specialist who treated Piccolo, and who said his highly publicized  death led to renewed research that had made a deadly form of cancer almost totally curable just 15 years later.

That story also benefitted from the recollections of Piccolo’s high school teammates who live in the area, and who turned out to be a most distinguished group. We got to know Dr. Dan Arnold, a leading children’s dentist, who loved to talk about his friend and how they competed to see who could make the most money. All who knew Piccolo confirmed his burning ambition to be successful and wealthy. He had not had a happy home environment, which friends thought motivated him to be a strong family man, with financial success.

We also interviewed attorney William Zloch, a name we recognized as a former Notre Dame quarterback, who would shortly be named to the federal bench. Over the last 35 years he has risen to become a highly respected U.S. District Senior Judge.

Dr. Arnold, a halfback, and Judge Zloch, quarterback, were joined in the backfield with fullback John Graham. At 160 pounds, he blocked more than ran the ball. He wound up with a long and highly successful career with Nabisco, much of the time in Palm Beach County. He is now retired in Haines City where he and his wife still operate a food brokerage business.

Piccolo, although a star, was not considered the best college prospect on the team. That was a big lineman, Bill Salter, who went to Wake Forest with Piccolo, but had a mediocre career there. Afterward, however, he became the third highest-ranking officer in the Sears organization, back when it was a formidable retail power.

The list goes on. Prominent builder/banker Jack Abdo was also on the team (“I didn’t play at all”) but was a close and deeply affectionate Piccolo friend through both grade and high school. Attorney Frank Walker did play, both ways, wide receiver and defensive end. He became president of the Broward County Bar Association and still gives speeches about Piccolo.

Brian Piccolo’s teammates are a remarkably successful group. Pic, who wanted to be the richest guy on the block, would appreciate the competition.