Speech to UNICO – Brian Piccolo Award Winners

On Wednesday, May 04, 2011 I was the guest speaker at the UNICO – Northern Bergen County / District IX Brian Piccolo Awards Dinner at The Estate at Florentine Gardens in River Vale, New Jersey.  The honorees were from High Schools in Cresskill, Greater Ramsey, Paramus, Oradell, Westwood and Woodcliff Lake, New Jersey. 

UNICO chapters around the country are proud to be associated with the name of Brian Piccolo.  Each year the Award is presented at the chapter and district level to a person demonstrating those athletic attributes associated with Piccolo.  The recipient must also be of Italian heritage. 

Being of 100% Italian decent, a high school athlete, and a television journalists covering sports today, predominantly the NBA, I wanted to gear my talk, both to why I, and others should be inspired by Brian Piccolo, but to also see those attributes in some athletes today.  While the loud mouths and law breakers are mostly in the headlines, it’s the stories that fly under the radar that should be glorified.

 Here’s the gist of my speech.  Of course, I went off on tangents, especially about being proud of your Italian heritage, and to not let the stereotypes hinder your pride.  I also left out elements I wrote here … and clearly by the end of the speech, I just went on bullet points. But in the end … it was the resumes of this year’s award winners that really inspired me by the end of the night!! Congratulations! And check out a couple of pics from the dinner on my Facebook Page.


Who has seen the movie “Brian’s Song”?

Who cried?

I haven’t seen it in a while …. And even if you saw it last night … it’s a story worth repeating … worth relating to people and events today … it’s an important life lesson … and while Brian Piccolo is not with us … his story lives on … to teach us.

I’ve learned … and observed … people interpret things different.

Brian Piccolo’s life story may teach one person about courage … another about fulfilling dreams … someone else may walk away, being reminded “each day can’t be taken for granted” … maybe some might be inspired how Piccolo’s life was an example of someone who saw no racial boundaries. 

Brian Piccolo didn’t live long enough to fulfill his dream of becoming a great NFL running back … because of his death, from cancer at just 26 years old.  But that does not mean he did not succeed, he succeed at courage and inspiring others.

What I want to talk about tonight … is that 100-million dollar salaries or winning a Championship … isn’t all about success! There are great victories in life beyond the fame and fortune. 

While playing for the Chicago Bears … Brian Piccolo was always in his best friend’s shadow.  No great fame, no great recognition … all of that was going to his teammate Gale Sayers.  Meanwhile, Piccolo was a great, all-American back at Wake Forest … in the 60’s … but because of his small stature, and his 40 time … he wasn’t drafted. 

The Bears signed him as a free agent and Piccolo spent a season on the practice squad.  But he eventually made the team, and was doing what he loved.  Playing football. 

I never scored a touchdown, never made a jump shot … outside of my sophomore gym class … but ever since I was 11 years old, I wanted to be on the sidelines of football and basketball games.  Be like Barbara Walters … just, instead of covering politics or wars … I wanted to cover sports. 

Like Brian Piccolo, I had a dream, a goal.  I knew what I loved to do … I did what I had to do in college and the years after … take small jobs , work for nothing, pay my dues, study games, players names, history of sports …. Like Piccolo had to rack up yards in college, be a star on his own college team …. Do what any individual has to do to achieve a goal??  Right …. Whether you want to become a teacher, doctor, lawyer, architect, there are steps to take to achieve a certain level. 

Piccolo was quoted several times about his recipe for success: talent, determination and luck … he said … “You have to be in the right place at the right time,” he said.”In my case, I happened to be a running back and they happened to draft Gale Sayers the same year. That’s not exactly the best way to bust into the league. That’s not exactly what you’d call being in the right place at the right time.”

Has anyone heard of Erin Andrews? Yeah. Brian. I get you. “Not exactly what you’d call being in the right place at the right time.”

It didn’t stop Brian.  Nor should it stop me, you, your friends, or anyone who sets a goal, sets out to do what they love. Just because a Hall of Famer might be doing what you love, what you want to do, why should that prevent you from reaching your goals, dreams.  LOOK …. sometimes a door won’t open … sometimes you are given the answer NO … well guess what … other doors will open; you must find a way to get to the answer YES.  Brian Piccolo got the biggest NO one could face … a diagnosis of cancer.  Yet still … he pressed on … becoming a hero to the most unlikely person … that Gayle Sayers guy. 

Piccolo hoped to become the team’s starting fullback, in the same backfield with Sayers, in 1966. Owner George Halas had other ideas, and Piccolo spent the season playing on special teams, But Piccolo’s playing time increased the next season as he became a backup to Sayers, his new roommate. The two became the first white and black men to room together in the NFL at a time the civil-rights movement was at its height.

Sayers always spoke highly of his roommate “Pic never badmouthed anybody,” Sayers said. “They say that people who like themselves like other people, and Brian was never short on self confidence. He truly liked people.” EVERYONE LOVED PICCOLO BACK

In 1968, Sayers suffered a ruptured cartilage and two torn ligaments in his right knee, ending his season. Piccolo became the starter. He even played hurt at times and In six games as a starter, Piccolo gained 450 yards.

Sayers the next season, and Piccolo was again relegated to being his backup. … and late in the season chest pains and a cough took him out of a game.

An  X-ray showed A tumor in his lungs, and Piccolo underwent surgery to remove the malignant tumor on November 28, at which time his doctor determined the cancer had spread.

Two weeks later, the Bears organized a press conference at his home and Piccolo announced his intent to continue playing football…. Despite chemotherapy, and more surgery to remove his entire left lung ….

Meanwhile …. Sayers, who had recovered from his injuries … won the NFL rushing title, was honored with the George Halas Award as the league’s most courageous player for the 1969 season. At a ceremony in New York, Sayers gave an emotional speech saying there was somebody more deserving of the award.

Brian Piccolo. 

I not going to read the speech. I’ll probably cry …. My husband is fighting cancer right now … and he’s doing great.  We’re expecting 100% recovery after surgery in June. 

But when you look at all the opponents Gayle Sayers had to run over …. None of them where as tough as the opponent Brian was facing.  Sayers said that Piccolo was braver and had more courage than anyone on a football field … and NO … that’s not what Brian wanted.  He’d much rather be running over defensive lineman than cancer … but Brian had become Sayers role model, a hero, a symbol of courage … a symbol of a man who loved him no matter his skin color.  Let us learn from Gayle Sayers …. Not how to be one of the greatest running backs in the NFL ever …. But how to see who the real heroes are, the real role models. 

Shortly there after … Brian Piccolo did pass away. But he …. To this day … is immortalized by the Bears, by these Brian Piccolo Awards dinners … because of his courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication. By just being himself.  Not a Hall of Fame back … but by being a great friend, and working hard at what he loved … playing football. A door closed on Brian Piccolo …. LIFE, but because of the way he lived, a door to becoming a true role model, a true hero opened. 

Less than 2 percent of high school athletes go on to become professional athletes. 

Crazy ….

But …

I’m going to use one as an example right now.

You can look to Amar’e Stoudemire as the 110-milliondollar man … took the New York Knicks on his back, brought them back to the playoffs, he’s in Vogue magazine, wearing stylish clothes, on David Letterman … he’s got New York City in the palm of his hand.  It’s impressive.  What I hope to point out tonight … like in the Brian Piccolo story … that there is more than the money and the NBA fame.  Those shiny things are nice … but they are not what impresses me about Amar’e.  And sometimes, those little things are what don’t get noticed.  Unfortunately … Brian Piccolo’s great attributes … they were revealed when he had to face cancer. 

Amar’e may have had a stiff back during the playoffs. But he’s fine. What I want to tell you is … about A good lesson.  Similar to the way Piccolo loved his roommate … Sayers … despite how the public viewed race relationships at the time …. Well …. I know a story about Amar’e …. The way he continued to love his mother … through a very trying time that’s worth recognizing on this night.  LOYALTY, DEDICATION … those words, words used by Piccolo as his reciepe to success … those words comes to mind.

  • Amar’e’s dad died at 12 …. Brothers and sisters … mom fell into tough tough times ….
  • Mom had to face jail time … Amar’e sent to 7 different high schools, eventually drafted … mom came to her own, straightened her life out … Amar’e was there for her … was LOYAL to her ….
  • Now …. Ministering and counseling people on the streets of Phoenix, helping them to get to rehab like her … get help like she did … …. Where her calling is

First pre-game at MSG … met her …. Proud …. “I’m Carrie Stoudemire”

Amar’e posts pictures on twitter of them when she visits …. He doesn’t say much about it … but his actions speak louder than words. Stayed LOYAL to her. 

Amar’e was the only superstar who was brave enough to take on NY.  He did.  Took team, city, and franchise on his big wide shoulders.  Then … Carmelo came along.  Wasn’t “Just” Amar’e anymore … But STAT never said a negative word, accepted Melo …. All his teammates talk about “never seeing a guy work harder …. He already got the 100 million dollars, still the first one in the gym and last one out.” (Shawne Williams after Knicks eliminated)

Loyalty to his mother, dedication to the sport he loves, humility around his teammates, leadership through action.

I want you to see that about Amar’e …. Not the 100 million dollars …

Many doors should have been closed for Amar’e … no parents, no true high school …. No college background …. He found open doors.  Could have fallen into a bad crowd, rebelled, no …. Found a way to a YES in life … used basketball …. BUT … was also there when his mother got help.  LOYAL

What will you DO, when you encounter a NO??????

I can stand here for 20 hours if I went through all the NO’s I’ve run into …..

But like Brian Piccolo and Amar’e Stoudemire … I knew what I loved. I loved talking sports …. Telling stories about sports … going to games. 

What ever you love, what ever your goals are … the path you take… may NOT be the path you envision … but that doesn’t mean you will not reach your goals.  I NEVER thought I would own a Red Sox World Series Ring, or be the New York Knicks sideline reporter day in and day out.

I interviewed for the Yankees field reporter job in 2005 … didn’t get job … went to the Red Sox … they said YES, when the Yankees said NO (ironically, Yankees Network is “YES” … Red Sox is “NESN”) BUT …  … I won / earned a World Series ring (WITH MY NAME ON IT)  in JUST two seasons.  Got out … (Boston was not my goal, working was the necessity, the stepping stone …)

I Had a goal … wanted to work in New York … had to leave NY to go to Boston, to then come back to NY … where am I now????  I call the World’s Most Famous Arena … my office.  But … it doesn’t stop with goals … keep striving, aim high … don’t stop ….

Interviewed a celebrity recently  … “my life is just beginning at 50”

But remember it’s the little things that will bring you the happiness in the success … like Brian Piccolo …. Like Amar’e Stoudemire …. Courage, dedication, loyalty, teamwork …

Heard quote … no idea … (Tom Thibodeau …Sean Payton … not sure … NBA or NFL coach on Sports Center)

“It’s not easy being good.”  (some people are born with talent, beauty, right place right time …. )

“But it’s easy to work hard” …. Working hard is a choice … courage, dedication, loyalty, teamwork … THOSE are choices.  Whether you are 17 or 67 …. Life can be filled with success and open doors if you make some of those simple choices!!!

About Tina Cervasio

Tina is a television and radio sports broadcaster in New York City and contributes to national television broadcasts as well. You can currently see Cervasio on FOX 5 WNYW, Big Ten Network, Red Bulls Broadcasts, NBA TV, while also appearing as a guest on many local and national shows to talk about sports headlines, particularly the NBA, MLB, MLS, US & International Soccer after being a team announcer for both the New York Knicks and Red Bulls for 8 years and the Boston Red Sox from 2006-07.
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