During a ceremony at Halas Hall this morning, Chicago Bears players Shea McClellin, Charles Tillman and Julius Peppers received the Brian Piccolo Award for humility, courage, teamwork, community involvement and sense of humor, as voted on by their teammates. It was Tillman's third Piccolo award and the first for both McClellin and Peppers.
The Piccolo Award is part of the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund, an endeavor that has raised more than $8.2 million for improved diagnostic tools and treatment for those afflicted with cancer.
The Fund was founded in 1974 in memory of Piccolo, a former Bears running back who died of cancer at age 26. Piccolo and his friend, Bears Hall of Famer Gayle Sayers, were the inspiration for the popular film "Brian's Song", which focused on the strong friendship between the two. The Fund supports a research chair at Rush Hospital in Chicago and at Sloan Kettering Cancer Hospital in New York City.
"It's so meaningful for me to be here today," Piccolo's widow, Joy, told those assembled at Halas Hall. "Through this fund, Brian's memory lives on. I'm so pleased that this has saved lives while honoring Brian's memory. I couldn't be happier than to have these three fine men honored here today with this award named for Brian."
Tillman, who was also a finalist for the NFL's Walter Payton Man of the Year award last year, heard he'd been selected for his most recent honor while at a barbecue in Texas.
"We're working so hard right now trying to get a championship for our fans in Chicago," Tillman said. "The fact my teammates took the time to vote for me is extremely meaningful. Even though this is my third time, this is very special for me."
Tillman spoke about the importance of leadership in the locker room, a popular topic in Chicago since the team parted ways with Brian Urlacher.
"I'm just speaking defensively, but for Lance (Briggs) and myself, we need to be the cornerstone to get this thing going," said Tillman. "I'm gratified that I have been recognized for my commitment to this team. I also guess they liked my sense of humor, as that is one of the parts of this award. It means so much because this is input from the team, not the coaches or anybody else."?
When asked if he planned to watch this week's NFL Draft, Tillman said he had enough to do without worrying about that.
"We're putting together a first-rate team for this season. I have no input into draft selections, so I'll spend my time concentrating on other things."
Julius Peppers, who was battling laryngitis, spoke about what the honor meant to him.
"It's about leadership," Peppers said. "It means so much to me that my teammates felt I was a positive contribution in that respect. I've been in the NFL quite a while, but I must say this award is one of the highlights of that experience. It's just chance that all of the recipients of this award are on the defense. I guess that means we have a good solid core group working here. We have good strong veterans, a lot of good young guys too."
When asked if Brian Urlacher's absence would have a negative impact, Peppers replied: "Leadership is always important within a team and we all know that Brian was a leader. But we will step up and fill that void."
McClellin, the rookie recipient of the award, is a fairly quiet presence in Chicago's locker room. So the award says a lot about the way his other contributions to the team.
"You all know I can be funny at times, but mostly I don't talk much," said McClellin. "It means a lot to me that my teammates feel I am making a positive contribution to the team, and that they see I have a sense of humor. My philosophy for most of my rookie year has been to keep my mouth shut, listen to the vets and absorb all that I could. I'm not sure that I'll change that approach much now that I'm a second-year player."
When asked if he knew Piccolo's story, McClellin said: "As soon as I found out I was coming to Chicago, I studied up on the team's history. It's one of the richest in the NFL. While watching "Brian's Song" is not mandatory for rookies here, it does help give a feeling of the team. I'm incredibly honored and blessed to be in this position, to be up here with Julius and Charles and to have received an award named for that courageous player."
Unlike Tillman, McClellin plans to tune in to watch at least some of the draft.
"I have a couple of teammates who should be drafted, so I'll be extremely interested to see what happens with that," McClellin said. "If they are as fortunate as I have been this first year, I will feel very good about that."
Beth Gorr has been covering the Bears for the last 12 years and is the author of Bear Memories: The Chicago-Green Bay Rivalry. She is currently working on a second book about early Bears history.