When I was a boy, I did many of the things boys of my generation did.
For awhile, I was an avid collector of football and baseball cards — many of which would be quite valuable today if my well–meaning mother had not thrown them out when she was cleaning and sorting once.
As a result of my hobby, I became familiar with the names of most of the men who played professional baseball and football in those days. Even today, when one of those men dies, it triggers memories of my childhood, and I am reminded that, no matter how healthy and strong people are when they're young, eventually bodies give out with the passage of time.
A few of those men taught me the lesson of mortality when I was still a boy and they were at an age that most of us would regard as too young to die.
One such man was Brian Piccolo of the Chicago Bears.
Piccolo never became an NFL superstar. I knew his name because I had his football card. But I didn't know until well after the fact that he had been diagnosed with cancer.
What I knew of Piccolo prior to that time was what most football fans probably knew — that he was an undersized fullback and a good friend of the Bears' star halfback, Gale Sayers.
But I really knew nothing of his disease until I read a book that was written about him after he died at the age of 26 on June 16, 1970.
My grandmother knew of my fondness for reading, and she gave me a copy of the book, "A Short Season," which was written by the wife of one of his former teammates. And I remember devouring that book, reading it from cover to cover, even though I was too young to pronounce many of the medical terms — much less know what they meant.
But I knew enough about cancer to know that just about everyone who was diagnosed with cancer did not survive. Well, that was the impression I had at the time. And I guess that was understandable. Up to that point in my young life, everyone I knew who had been diagnosed with cancer had died.
And, although I knew before I read the book that Piccolo also had died, I still grieved when I got to the part of the book that described his final days.
And I grieved again when I saw the TV movie that was based on his life, "Brian's Song," starring, among others, James Caan and Billy Dee Williams. Neither Caan nor Williams were unknowns when that film was made, and I have seen both in other movies in the years since. But I always think of Piccolo whenever I see either of them.
Oh, remember what I said about a cancer diagnosis being a death sentence when I was a child? Well, I've lost some other friends to cancer since Piccolo died — but I also have some friends who fought it and won. Thankfully, the times, they are a–changing.
When Piccolo was diagnosed with embryonal cell carcinoma, the fatality rate was 100%. But, thanks in part to the work of the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, about 95% of those who are diagnosed with it can be cured.
It was a tragedy that Brian Piccolo's season was so short, but perhaps his life has served — and continues to serve — a long–lasting purpose