To put it simply, the National Football League (NFL) is packed full of talented players with lots of ambition, drive, and focus to succeed. Many of these players are easily identified by their playing style and intuition, along with their stamina while on the field.
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The position of running back, and their relationship with the quarterback, is a pretty underrated one. As a result, it’s a pretty tough feat to stand out from the rest when it comes to NFL betting lines or simply curating a list of the best NFL players in this position.
Yet that’s exactly what Brian Piccolo did.
Piccolo remains one of the most legendary members of the Chicago Bears franchise for many reasons. Despite his premature death, his legacy lives on.
Piccolo was the star running back at Central Catholic High School in Fort Lauderdale (now St. Thomas Aquinas High School) which has produced a series of notable NFL players including Joey Bosa, Michael Irvin, Stefan Humphries, and Major Wright.
Piccolo accepted a full scholarship from Wake Forest University to play football and survived his sophomore and his junior year under the guise of anonymity.
In 1964, during his senior season, he had a breakout performance that saw him manage to score 111 points on 17 touchdowns while also scoring nine extra points. He also led the entire nation in terms of rushing after achieving a new record of 1,044 yards.
During his time here, he set nine new school records and six conference marks. He also clinched the title of ACC player of the year.
Joining The Chicago Bears
The 1965 NFL Draft saw 280 players selected in 20 rounds. However, Piccolo wasn’t among the chosen few—even though he led the nation in both rushing and scoring at Wake Forest. It was quickly assumed that he was too small to take on the fullback position in the NFL.
Not only was this blatant snub a blow to his pride but it also showed that even the best players won’t always succeed on the first try!
Fortunately, Piccolo received his breakout pro opportunity from the Chicago Bears. He initially joined the Bears as a free agent. His college credentials made the move to the Bears pretty big news, and coach/owner George Halas hosted a press conference to announce this signing which was – and remains – an unprecedented move for an undrafted player.
Piccolo spent his rookie season on the ‘taxi squad’ within the franchise (now called the practice squad) which meant he could practice but wasn’t permitted to play in any games.
His most productive season with the Bears occurred in 1968 when he ran for a career-high 450 yards and scored two touchdowns on 123 attempts. He also had 28 receptions for 291 yards.
A lot of his workload occurred within the final six games after Gale Sayers sustained a season-ending knee injury in a game against the 49ers. Upon Sayers’ return to football in 1969, Piccolo returned to his backup running back role. He also practiced at fullback.
Piccolo was then bothered by a severe cough and chose to take himself out of a big game against the Falcons in Atlanta in November 1969 as he was having major difficulties breathing. This was the final time he would ever step foot onto an NFL field.
Illness And Death
In that same month (November 1969), Piccolo underwent a grueling four-and-a-half-hour surgery in a New York hospital to remove a malignant tumor from his chest. He hoped to return to playing with the Bears but was quick to acknowledge that his cancer diagnosis had changed his general outlook on life. Unfortunately, the cancer spread and he succumbed to the disease on June 16th, 1970.
In 1971, Piccolo became an original member of the Wake Forest Sports Hall of Fame after being inducted posthumously. It was an amazing way to celebrate the short life and professional football career of this talented athlete.
Though his NFL career was very short, Piccolo’s legacy is still celebrated by the Bears today. In June 2022, to honor the 52nd year since the franchise icon passed away, all of the Bears players wore his No. 41 jersey during practice.
Piccolo’s number is retired for the Bears. So this lovely nod to allow all players to wear it during practice was a solid gesture to the memory of the franchise legend.
Though his NFL career was short, and he was not granted the time to truly live, Brian Piccolo accomplished many amazing things in his time. Notably, his NFL records remain intact and his legacy with the Chicago Bears franchise is as solid as ever. As a result, this running back remains firmly among some of the NFL’s greatest.