The Legend Endures
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 of 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 opened our conversation by asking “What part of Philadelphia are you from, Mac?” He recognized the accent, having lived there. 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 who said Piccolo "wanted to be the richest guy on the block." 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.
The only teammate whose name we recognized was William Zloch, a former Notre Dame quarterback who had gotten national press as one of three brothers playing for the Irish. He shortly would be named a federal judge. Over the last 35 years he has risen to become a highly respected U.S. District Senior Judge.
Central Catholic in the early 1960s was a lot smaller than the present St. Thomas Aquinas, which has become a national powerhouse, attracting top athletes from a broad area of South Florida and transfers from other schools who value the football program’s visibility with college scouts. Piccolo’s senior year the team was a so-so 4-4. And Piccolo was not Broward County’s brightest star. That would be South Broward’s Tucker Frederickson who went on to star at Auburn and played six years for the New York Giants. But the team always had a great spirit, and in a few years it would have other measures of pride besides Brian Piccolo’s legend.
Dr. 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.
“Brian was a very funny guy,” Abdo says, “and there was a lot to him. He was more than a football player.”
Attorney Frank Walker did play a lot. “We all played both ways,” he recalls. “We only had 33 people on the team, and that may have included water boys. We played Lauderdale High who had 80 players.” Walker became president of the Broward County Bar Association and still gives speeches about Piccolo.
Brian Piccolo did not live long enough to see his teammates have such remarkably successful careers. But Pic, who wanted to be the richest guy on the block, was also a great friend. He would surely welcome the competition.