Brian Picollo At Wake Forest
from Jeannie Morris' BRIAN PICCOLO: A SHORT SEASON
Wake Forest College stands on gently rolling hills in Winston-Salem North Carolina. In 1956 the school was moved from the town of Wake Forest and built from the ground up, with a $21-million grant from the Zachary Smith Reynolds Foundation. Zachary Smith was a relative of R. J. Reynolds, and Reynolds tobacco warehouses abound in the area. The college, though, looks like it's been there for a century, so graceful and well-planned are the red-brick Georgian buildings. The campus is dominated by the chapel. But Wake Forest's Baptist beginnings are only slightly felt by the students. The school certainly didn't hesitate to admit one academically average Italian Catholic football player named Brian Piccolo.
Brian didn't tell anyone that Wake Forest and Wichita State were the only colleges in the country to offer him scholarships. He turned down Wichita.
Good thing too, he said later. That would have put me in Sayers country [Gale graduated from Kansas U] and Kansas wasn't big enough for both of us.
Coach Kurth claims that Brian actually rode into Wake Forest on the tails of his high school teammate, tackle Bill Salter. "They were really interested in the big tackle," Kurth said, "I was able to persuade them that Brian had that something extra that would do the job for them. They were worried about his lack of speed."
Salter did something else for Brian. He fleshed out such a legend that the Salter stories circulating through Wake's athletic culture left Brian with no choice but to be great. "We were all looking around for the future 'stars,'" remembered a fellow frosh recruit, Jim Mayo. "We figured we were in the big-time, and I guess each of us wasn't so sure of himself," said Mayo, "but we knew somewhere there were some real big-timers. And here was this bullshit artist, Salter. He had war stories on Brian that were incredible. He'd tell us how the Cubs and Pirates had been panting for Piccolo in baseball; how he was unstoppable on the football field. And the broads! To hear Salter, Brian was like a pasha. Hefner should have it so good. You'd go to check all this out with Brian and he'd say, 'Well...' and just smile a lot."
Bill Salter wasn't the only bullslinger at Wake. Brian told a story on his friend Mayo that was still circulating years later. It seems that on one of their traditional spring break trips to the Fort Lauderdale beaches, Brian and Jim were speeding south on Highway 85 when a state policeman stopped them.
The officer said to Mayo, who was driving, "Son, you're speeding."
"I didn't realize that, Sir," Jim replied. "I go to Wake Forest and I'm trying to get to the beach."
The cop said, "Let me see your driver's license ."
"I left in a hurry, Sir, and I don't have my billfold," Mayo told him.
"You don't have your billfold? Then let me see your certificate of ownership. It's probably in the glove compartment."
Mayo looked, but it wasn't there.
"Sir," said Jim, "we don't have that either."
"Don't you even know who this car belongs to?" asked the cop. "Don't you know who you are?"
Mayo had a lot of poise. He reached into his pocket and pulled out two dimes. "Sir," he said, "do you know what these are?"
"They're dimes," the officer replied.
"No, Sir," said Mayo. "These are silver bullets and I'm the Lone Ranger."
Mayo swears Brian made the whole thing up.
That first year of football saw Brian star with the Wake Forest Baby Deacons, coached by a former Chicago Bear immortal, Beattie Feathers. The Baby Deacs were 2-3 for the season. Brian scored five touchdowns and four extra points and averaged 4.2 yards per carry. The statistics showed that no yardage was ever lost when Pic had the ball. Ironically, the varsity's first opponent in 1981 was to be Baylor University. Baylor's star fullback that year was future Bear Ronnie Bull, so when the Wake teams gathered on September 28th to begin practice, the freshmen, as fodder for Billy Hildebrand's varsity, were required to run Baylor's offense, and Piccolo became Ronnie Bull, incidentally becoming a fullback. The Baby Deacs were so well trained for that first game that Feathers kept the Baylor offense throughout the season. "I was a helluva Ronnie Bull," said Brian.
Brian Piccolo playing fullback Brian Piccolo gained over 400 yards in his sophomore year, again averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
Our sophomore year we opened up with Army. I have no love for the academies; they kind of destroy your image of the clean-cut American officer -- play dirty. I was a little nervous. Although their stadium at West Point holds about thirty-five thousand, this day they had only about two or three thousand out for the game. But they had these microphones sprinkled throughout the cadets in the stands, and when they're turned on it sounds like a hundred thousand fans. And these guys are very rhythmic with their cheers. I was the second-string place-kicker and was out on the field warming up with our first-string place-kicker, when Army took the field and these three thousand or so let out this inhuman cry -- I could visualize the Japs coming over the hills in droves, and jezus, next thing I know the center snaps one over my head and hits the place-kicker in the head with another ball. I mean our whole team fell to pieces, and it was just Army taking the field.
Needless to say we didn't go on to conquer the cadets that day. Or anyone that whole year. We lost all ten games.
If I had known we were going to lose eight more during my junior year before we finally won one -- well, it got to where it was really frustrating. You go out to play, and the other teams would keep scoring, and you'd say, "Oh my God, how can we overcome this?" It was just one bad afternoon after another. But finally, and it was homecoming too, we beat South Carolina -- Hell., I beat 'em!
I was just so fired up. I had scored a touchdown and I really hamburgered it up. I threw the ball in the stands. After being down nineteen-seven at half time, we were still behind six points, but I was ready. I sensed that we were going to win a game. I carried the ball maybe twenty-two times for a hundred and forty yards or so. Then quarterback and place-kicker Karl Sweetan carried the ball over to tie it nineteen-nineteen. But Karl got hurt in the act of scoring, so I went over to Hildy, and I said, "I'll kick the damn thing!" So I kicked it, and we won twenty-nineteen.
Quarterback Karl Sweetan left Wake after just one year, continuing on a football odyssey that eventually found him with the Los Angeles Rams. That left a spot with the Deacons, which John Mackovic captured.
As a result of the South Carolina victory, Coach Billy Hildebrand was named UPI's college coach of the week, not only for the victory but "for just plain courage under fire." Brian was honorably mentioned by the AP. One local writer commented: "Wake Forest fullback Brian Piccolo will not make the '63 All-Atlantic Coast Conference football team. But when he sits his grandchildren on his knee 30 years from now and shows them his scrapbook, they will be as impressed as if he had made the honor squad."
Brian was extra thrilled to get a letter from Washington Redskin quarterback Norman Snead congratulating him on his performance. Snead, a 1981 graduate of Wake, was his sponsor and a $1,000 contributor to the Deacon athletic scholarship fund. It was good to know at least somebody in the pros was watching you.
You couldn't tell it from his clippings, but Brian wasn't all jock.
When Wake got the Reynolds grant and moved, the fraternities said they would not build individual houses but agreed to sign long-term leases for sections of University-built dormitories. What they had was maybe three rooms downstairs and a straight up section of the dorm. It was very odd. I pledged Sigma Chi when I was a freshman, and it took me about two weeks to realize this was not my bag. Brotherhood's groovy and all of that but there was just nothing offered. Why should l pay dues just to hang out in one section of the dorm? As a social pledge I could go to everybody's parties -- they were always recruiting you. It turned out great and I could go to all parts of the dorm.
By the time I was a sophomore I had it all mapped out. I took a pretty liberal course but 1 wanted to go into broadcasting. I majored in speech, minored in business. I was going to really get ready: have a pro football career go into broadcasting and with a business minor I'd know how to handle all that money.
You know when you say you're a speech major people don't know what all is involved. Hell I took courses in acting and directing that I tell you were damn tough. In fact the head of the drama department, Doctor James Walton persuaded me to stay over the summer after my junior year and play summer stock at Tanglewood Barn Theatre just outside of Winston-Salem. I told him I' d try anything once.
Walton really laid one on me. We did Come Back, Little Sheba, and 1 played Turk. If you know the play Turk is this big dumb athlete who is always on the make for this chick who is an artist. Up until this time Walton had make a fetish of casting a guy in parts that belied his personality. For instance my first assignment from him, my first scene for crissake, was to play the queer kid lover to the woman of the world in Tea and Sympathy. But I worked at I, I really did. Turned out I was a hell of a queer.
Turk, though, that was typecasting. Opening night was a terror. A bunch of my buddies came out and wouldn't you know, they sat in the front row. There is this one scene in Sheba where Turk has to pose as a javelin thrower so the girl can sketch him. So I come out in my shorts and strike this ridiculous stance with a broom for a javelin. 1 was a little flabby – it was summertime – and I could hear these guys in the front row breaking up. I was trying so hard to stay in but I was nervous as hell. I almost cracked.
I got a good review though, from the local lady critic. She was an old maid, and I guess just seeing my hairy chest must have done something for her.
Billy Hildebrand was released following, Brian's junior football season. In four years as Wake Forest's head coach he had won seven games. One of his players couldn't help describing Hildy: "He was a 'dag nabit,' 'by gum,' southern bible thumpin' gentleman. He was kind and literate and never used profanity. He was the sort of guy you might want your son to play for. You know how they talk about losing games and building character? Hildy was a character builder."
Jeannie Morris, BRIAN PICCOLO: A SHORT SEASON