Brian Piccolo was a Chicago Bears team member from 1965-1969. For men like me, Piccolo left a path to follow, and I was called to emulate him in more ways than one. During his tenure with the Bears, Piccolo developed embryonal cell carcinoma, an uncommon form of a rare type of cancer: testicular cancer. During his senior year at Wake Forest University in 1964, Piccolo led the nation in rushing. He was considered too small to play professionally, something to which I can relate. Coach George Halas signed him anyway.
As the 1967 season approached, the Bears executive staff asked Piccolo and star running back Gayle Sayers if they would be willing to room together (for a glimpse of the “Magic” that was Gayle Sayers in his prime, view this 30-second clip of footage used in the movie, Brian’s Song). Sayers and Piccolo became the first interracial roommates in the National Football League. The two men also became good friends, and Piccolo performed brilliantly when he filled in for Sayers after Sayers received a devastating knee injury. Sayers made a comeback, and, though the knee was never the same, he remained on the team through the 1971 season.
Brian Piccolo died of embryonal cell carcinoma in June, 1970. In June, 1986, I was diagnosed with it. Thanks to the efforts of Joy Piccolo O’Connell, Piccolo’s widow, and the support of many Piccolo friends and supporters, the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund has raised many millions of dollars over the years, and men like me are alive today due to the concentrated efforts stemming from the focus on curing this particular form of cancer.
I have been in remission for 31 years and I can still smell the Jordan Ward, an inpatient chemotherapy nursing unit “back in the day” at what was then Duke University Medical Center. I've also been blessed with a relatively long life, as well as many opportunities to follow in order to learn the basics of how to lead. If cancer and its treatment is anything, it is humbling, and it prepared me to follow a different path.
Sometimes, we’re called to follow in the footsteps of giants. America places much emphasis on producing great leaders, when perhaps what we need first is people who know how to follow. As a Christian clergyman and a Cherokee descendant, I try to follow Jesus and my own interpretation of the Great Spirit. I am, however, proud to also follow in Piccolo’s footsteps, in the shadow of a young man whose legacy has helped countless individuals. Following in this manner is truly a calling in and of itself.
Who are you following, and why?