Padecky: Brian Piccolo led by example when it came to embracing others
I didn’t tell my father that night. Or the next night. Or the night after that. Never did tell him. Never wanted to face the repercussions. Did think about bringing up Brian Piccolo and what he did the year before at Wake Forest but thought better of it. Probably would have made it worse.
It was the winter of 1964 in South Florida, which, of course, is ridiculous since South Florida has no winter, just a couple months in which you need to wear a long-sleeved shirt. Was going to start college baseball in a few months, and the night game in Deerfield Beach was just to stay in shape.
Deerfield Beach, then, was where the Black people lived. Boca Raton, my hometown to the north on the Gold Coast, was where the white people lived. I grew up in Boca, went to a high school that had one Black student. Deerfield people didn’t go to Boca and Boca people didn’t go through Deerfield, unless it was to go to Lauderdale or Key West.
A game was arranged. My white team, the Boca Bombers (please hold your applause), was to play a Deerfield team in Deerfield. I pitched. Some guy who went by the name of Man Boy hit one of the my lame fastballs to Boca.
Come on over to our club after the game, the Deerfield guys invited our team. It’ll be fun. I looked around. My teammates left as if they heard an anthrax warning. Sure, I said. I was curious, a lifelong affliction I turned into a career. Wanted to see why my father referred to Black people with a sneer and the n-word.
It was maybe the best time in my life. Never paid for a drink or food. Never had an isolated moment. Never felt uncomfortable, only welcomed. When they laughed when I danced, I laughed with them, the obvious being hard to ignore. I did learn a few moves but of course forgot them when I sobered up the next day.
What I saw and felt and remember with crystal clarity to this day is ... nothing. Nothing jumps out. Nothing. Seemed like I was around a bunch of white people. They laughed. They drank. They said stupid stuff. They said smart stuff. They smelled, which is what white people also do in the South Florida humidity.
They did say they get sunburned just like white people, which really blew my mind. Yes, I guess that stands out.
Funny, if anything, they were relaxed. I didn’t always experience that with white people. White people, at least the ones I saw in high school, always seemed preoccupied about something.
That would have been a good time to find Brian Piccolo to hear what he had to say. Piccolo, if you recall, was the first white player in NFL history who roomed with a Black player, Gale Sayers. They not only became Chicago Bears roommates but best friends.
Piccolo died of testicular cancer in 1970 at the age of 26. Sayers at the funeral delivered one of the most memorable tributes in sports history: “I love Brian Piccolo and I’d like all of you to love him, too. Tonight when you hit your knees, please ask God to love him.”
In 1963, long before he ever met Sayers, Piccolo was the team captain and All-American running back at Wake Forest. Darryl Hill, a running back from Maryland, was the first Black player in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Hill had faced death threats whenever he played. Two ACC teams, Clemson and South Carolina, even refused to play Maryland if Hill played, a decision they eventually walked back from.
In the pregame drills before Maryland was to play at Wake Forest, Hill was booed and jeered unmercifully. After warmups, Piccolo walked over to Hill and said, “I want to apologize for the behavior of my fans.” Piccolo then draped his arm over Hill’s shoulder and walked to Wake Forest’s student section.
The closer the duo advanced, the quieter the boos and jeers, until there was not a sound. The pair didn’t say a thing. They just stood there.
At the height of the Civil Rights Movement, when leaders were executed, when National Guard troops were called, when protesters were sprayed with fire hoses and beaten, a white man put his arm around a Black man and walked as if they were friends.
If that image rekindles another memory, it should. In 1947, to quiet a vehement Cincinnati crowd, Dodger shortstop Pee Wee Reese walked over to Jackie Robinson and put his arm around the first Black player in Major League Baseball history.
Reese and Robinson never said a word. Neither did Piccolo and Hill. They just stood there, the ultimate example of actions speaking louder than words.
The impact all four men created was evident in the silence. Later they would speak of it. In the years that followed volumes have been written about all four men and the statement they were making.
No one, however, went up into either stand and asked the people who booed and jeered what THEY were thinking. They went quiet. Why? Were they still hostile but now felt embarrassed? Did it have any impact on how they saw people of color? Weren’t they at least curious as to why one of their “own” crossed the line? Would they have liked to talk to Reese and Piccolo? Did it change their minds? Even a little? Or were they so locked into their hate?
If Piccolo and Hill and Reese and Robinson could stand in full view and be held accountable, fairness would demand, it seems, the opposing view should be provided equal time. So please, explain to us, why you went silent and so quickly? Was there a tug at your humanity?
We’ll never know. That opportunity has been lost to time. Just as the opportunity to find out why “Brian’s Song” was pulled from Chicago theaters.
“Brian’s Song” was an ABC TV Movie of the Week in 1971, a heart-tug drama into the relationship of Piccolo and Sayers. It was the most watched TV movie of the year. Lovingly judged as the best “guy-cry” movie ever made, Columbia Pictures picked it up and put in their theaters.
Within a short time Columbia removed it for lack of response. Sure, by that time, the audience had been exposed for quite a long time to the Brian Piccolo story. Maybe that was it. Over exposed, even in Chicago. Maybe.
Or maybe it was a reminder of something some people no longer wanted to be reminded about. Guys crying and a Black man hugging a white man. Was that the life they knew? Was that the life they wanted? And would it take too much effort to answer those questions?
For me, those questions were answered a long time ago, at a club I can’t remember, with faces I cannot recall. All I remember is that someone reached out to me and all I did was reach back. Seemed so simple then. Still does.
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