Fortunato has fond memories of teammate

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 6, 2001

The life and death of Brian Piccolo touched all who knew him. That includes Piccolo’s teammate Joe Fortunato, a Natchez businessman and former Chicago Bears linebacker.

“Brian was a first-class person,” said Fortunato, who played with the Bears from 1955 to 1969. A new version of the movie “Brian’s Song,” based on Piccolo’s life, aired on ABC on Sunday. It provided an avenue of memories for Fortunato.

Piccolo’s story is poignant on many levels, as he died at a young age of a rare form of cancer but not before making his mark on football as well as on humanity.

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His friendship with Gale Sayers and the example the two set for others during the turbulent, racially divided 1960s are legend not only in Chicago but throughout the sports world.

“We really didn’t have many blacks playing with the Bears in my first years with the team,” Fortunato said. That began to change in the 1960s.

“When Brian and Gale came in that same year, Coach Halas was trying to ease things by putting a black and a white together as roommates,” Fortunato said, adding that the Bears as a team never experienced racial tension. “We were all pretty close.”

And for roommates Piccolo and Sayers, who not only were breaking new ground racially but also were vying for the same position on the team, the chemistry was perfect. Fortunato remembers both Piccolo and Sayers for the heart they put into the game. “Brian did not have the talent that Gale had, but he was a tough player,” he said. “And Gale, even though he was such a great player, was always the first one on the field, practicing hard and playing hard.”

Piccolo played for the Bears for only four seasons. He died at 26 in June 1970. He grew up in Florida and played college football at Wake Forest University, where in his senior year he led the nation in rushing yardage, Fortunato said.

The National Football League passed over Piccolo, but he signed with the Bears as a free agent in 1965. After his death, friends in Chicago established the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund. “Every year the Bears raise money for Brian’s fund,” Fortunato said.

With a home in Natchez since the 1950s, Fortunato has become a familiar face. Most often he is with his partner, Noland Biglane. The two joined forces in 1969 forming a new oil company, Big Joe Operating Company, both men already having experience in the field.

More than 30 years have passed since Fortunato played with the Bears. Like Piccolo and Sayers, he played hard, missing only one game in his entire 13-year career. “It was in my 10th year, and we played San Francisco,” he said.

A great memory for him is 1963, two years before Piccolo and Sayers joined the Bears. “We won the World Championship that year against the New York Giants in Chicago,” he said. “That was before they called it the Super Bowl.”

Today the game is controlled by many more rules than in his day, Fortunato said. “You could do anything then.”

The biggest change is in the size of the players, he said. “We averaged about 260 pounds on the line then, but today the average is over 300 pounds.”

One thing that has not changed is the heart with which most players play the game, he said. “I don’t think that’s going to change.”

Joan Gandy is special projects director of The Natchez Democrat. She can be reached at (601) 445-3541 or by e-mail to