In 1969, Brian Piccolo was a 26-year-old fullback for the Chicago Bears in the National Football League when he was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He died from that disease in 1970. He was immortalized in “Brian’s Song”, the movie of his life that was first released in 1971 and remade in 2001.
In 1996, 26 years later, 25-year-old Lance Armstrong was diagnosed with testicular cancer that had spread to his brain, lungs and liver. In February 1997, he was declared free of cancer and by January 1998, he renewed serious bicycle training and went on to become the most famous bicycle racer in the world.
The difference between life and death in testicular cancer is a doctor named Larry Einhorn who, in 1974, developed the life-saving medical treatment for testicular cancer, increasing the survival rate from less than 10 percent to almost 100 percent today (Cancer Clin Trials 1980;3:307-13). My son-in-law, Dr. Thomas Gardner, is a Professor of Urology at Indiana University School of Medicine and worked with Dr. Einhorn.
Brian Piccolo’s Brief Life
Brian Piccolo was famous for succeeding in sports as one of the smallest fullbacks in the NFL because he was tougher than everyone else, and for helping to integrate both college football in the Atlantic Coast Conference and professional football in the National Football League.
Brian attended Central Catholic High School (now renamed Thomas Aquinas High School) in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. His best sport was baseball, but he also played football. He was not very big in high school and was not fast enough for the backfield, so his coach put him on the football team as an offensive tackle. His high-school team was so bad that it lost twice as many games as it won in his first three seasons. In 1960, his senior year, his coach switched him to halfback because of his skills, not his size or speed. He could block, run, and catch the football. Brian carried the ball most of the time for his team and in 1960, the team had its best record ever, four games won and four games lost.
Losing Seasons at Wake Forest
No colleges were interested in a guy who was a mediocre running back for a mediocre high school team. In the end, his coach asked the Wake Forest coach to recruit Brian after he learned that Wake Forest was interested in his teammate, tackle Bill Salter. Once there, Brian gave up baseball for good and trained hard to become a very good football player. In 1961, his freshman year, he averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored five touchdowns for a team that lost all its games. In his sophomore year, he rushed for 324 yards for a team that also lost all ten of its games. In his junior year, he rushed for a mediocre 367 yards, but at least Wake Forest won one of its 10 games.
In his senior year Wake Forest lost its first three games. In its fourth game, trailing 14 to 17 with 2 minutes to go, Brian scored the winning touchdown and kicked the extra point for a 21-17 victory. In the Duke game, Brian carried the ball 36 times to help beat Duke, 20-7. In his final college game, he scored three touchdowns to lead Wake Forest to a 27 to 13 victory to deprive North Carolina State of the ACC championship and give Wake Forest its best season in years, with five wins and five losses. He led the nation in rushing with 1,044 yards on 252 carries and the ACC in scoring with 111 points on 17 touchdowns and nine extra points.
The NFL Didn’t Want Him
Brian was terribly disappointed in the National Football League draft. No team wanted him because he was only 5 foot, 10 inches, weighed only 185 pounds, and was not very fast. On December 25, he was getting married and a bear carved in ice appeared at the reception table. The Bears’ coach, George Halas, had donated it and told the newlyweds to come to Chicago. Brian signed on the spot to play for the Bears because he thought he had a chance to succeed as a member of a team that had the worst running game in the National Football League.
In his first year with the Bears he played only on the taxi squad, which means that he didn’t dress for games and only practiced with the team. In 1966, his second year, he got to dress for games but played only on special teams and ran the ball from scrimmage just three times. In 1967 he backed up superstar tailback Gale Sayers, gained 317 yards and averaged 4.1 yards per carry. In 1968, Sayers injured his knee and he got to play more.
He Helped to Integrate the ACC and the NFL
In 1963, The University of Maryland football team showed up for a game at Wake Forrest with Darryl Hill, the first and at that time, only African-American football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. The stands were loaded with prejudiced Wake Forest students, typical of southern universities at that time. Brian Piccolo walked over to the University of Maryland team bench, put his arm around Hill and walked with him before the Wake Forest student section. The unruly, inconsiderate crowd immediately quieted down.
In the 1960s, many hotels segregated hotel room assignments by race. The Chicago Bears attempted to challenge this disgusting behavior by having players room with each other by position only and not by race. For example, wide receivers would room with wide receivers. Since Sayers who is black and Piccolo who was white were both running backs, they became the first white and black players to room together in the NFL. They became close friends.
In 1969, Sayers returned from his injury and Brian joined him as starting full back. The Bears were in big trouble, having one of their worst seasons ever. They eventually won only one of 14 games. On November 16, Piccolo had to drop out of a game because he couldn’t breathe. A chest X-ray showed a tumor in his left lung. It had spread from a cancerous testicle. He was started on chemotherapy and surgeons at Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York removed his testicle and part of his left lung. In April 1970, surgeons removed his cancerous left lung and left chest wall. He received radioactive iodine seeds and radiation. In June the tumor spread to his lower chest and liver and he died on June 16, 1970, at the age of 26.
An Incurable Disease Becomes Almost Totally Curable
In 1970 the survival rate for men with testicular cancer that had spread through the body was five percent. In 1974, Lawrence Einhorn showed that three potent poisons, cisplatin + vinblastine + bleomycin, cured 60 percent of men with metastatic testicular cancer. Today testicular cancer has among the highest cure rate of all cancers. If the cancer is localized to the testicle, the five-year survival is better than 99 percent. If testicular cancer has spread to nearby structures and lymph nodes it has a cure rate of 96 percent, while cancer that has spread to organs or lymph nodes away from the testicles has a 74 percent five-year survival rate. For rare cases in which cancer has spread throughout the body, the cure rate with chemotherapy, stem cells and surgery techniques is better than 70 percent (JAMA, 2008; 299(6):672–684).
Cancer of the testicles is the most common cancer in men ages 15–35. The most common early symptom of testicular cancer is a lump or swelling in one of the testicles. More than 96 percent of men treated for the disease today are still alive after 10 years (Ann Oncol, 2013 Feb;24(2):508-13).
October 31, 1943 – June 16, 1970