Brian Piccolo is known throughout the U.S. as a beloved member of the Chicago Bears who fought cancer until the very end and improved race relations through his friendship with star teammate Gale Sayers.
The local community also knows him as an outgoing Beverly resident who was engaged with his neighbors.
Piccolo lived in North Beverly after signing with the Bears in 1965.
He died on June 16, 1970, and to commemorate the 50-year anniversary of his death, the Beverly Area Planning Association (BAPA) hosted a parade through North Beverly.
His family joined local residents in donning Bears orange and blue as they drove down the streets honking their horns in the parish of Christ the King Roman Catholic Church.
“It is amazing after all these years that Beverly still embraces him like they did when [Piccolo and his wife, Joy] first came here,” said his daughter Traci Piccolo-Dolby. “I know how much he loved it here, and they loved this parish. They are still connected with the families that they got to know so well.”
Piccolo, who had three young daughters, was only 26 when he died. His life was chronicled in the film “Brian’s Song,” which highlights his close friendship with Sayers. Piccolo, who was white, and Sayers, who is black, were the NFL’s first interracial roommates for road games during a time when race riots were happening across the U.S.
Piccolo was born in Massachusetts and played at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. After joining the Bears, he moved to North Beverly because of its Italian heritage, his daughter said, and because homes were located close together and neighbors often hung out together.
She called it Piccolo’s “dream community.”
“He just loved everything about Beverly, which is why after he passed away, my mom didn’t leave,” Piccolo-Dolby said. “She could have easily gone back to Atlanta, where her parents were, but she wanted to stay here, and she wanted us to be where they both fell in love.”
The family remained in Beverly for a year after Piccolo’s death, his daughter said, before moving to Deerfield, closer to other families of Bears players.
BAPA Executive Director Mary Jo Viero grew up in North Beverly and was a young girl when the Piccolos lived nearby. She later learned about the love people had for Piccolo.
As the anniversary of his death approached, she wanted to do something special. So, Viero organized the parade that drove by the two homes the Piccolo Family lived in, as well as a greenspace near the 91st Metra train station that has been proposed to become a park named after Piccolo.
The parade began at Christ the King Church, where Piccolo’s funeral was held on June 19, 1970.
Participants wore Piccolo’s No. 41 jersey, and a life-sized cutout of him in uniform was displayed through a sunroof. One car played “Bear Down, Chicago Bears.” Orange and blue ribbons were hung on trees.
“I just knew he was a part of the community,” Viero said. “I did not want this day to go by without celebrating him.”
The Rev. Larry Sullivan, pastor of Christ the King, said in a pre-parade prayer that Piccolo was “a loving husband, father, son and brother” who fought for racial justice and equality.
Piccolo led the nation in rushing yards in his senior season at Wake Forest, but he also displayed an ability to break down racial barriers during college.
Before a game in his sophomore year, Piccolo visited with University of Maryland player Darryl Hill, the first and only black player in the Atlantic Coastal Conference. He walked Hill to an area in front of the Wake Forest student section, which had been taunting Hill, and put his arm around him. The crowd grew silent.
“The world lost a beacon of courage, compassion and acceptance,” Sullivan said of Piccolo’s death. “Brian Piccolo was an exceptional football player, but he was an even more exceptional human being.”
The Chicago Bears still honor Piccolo by presenting an award to one rookie and one veteran every season who display Piccolo’s courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor. Players vote on the award, and David Montgomery and Nick Williams were named this year’s winners. As is tradition, the Bears announced the winners on June 16.
They also announced that day that “Brian Piccolo: A Short Season” is being reprinted as part of Bears Care’s “All Four One” campaign; sales will benefit the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund.
June 16 holds additional memories for the Piccolo Family, as it is also the birthday of Piccolo-Dolby’s son, Jack, who turned 23 on the day of the parade.
Piccolo-Dolby is proud of the legacy her father left in improving race relations.
“He was really a unifier. He drew people to him,” she said. “That’s just how we all are. We were raised to not see color as a reason to create a barrier.”