Tonawanda News — The moment Brian Piccolo’s feet hit the ground every morning, it’s a race against the clock.
“There’s just so much to do,” said Piccolo, the 35-year-old amateur MMA fighter, whose day job as a subcontractor sometimes means working 70-hour weeks.
“You can work all day and there will still be stuff to do,” he said.
And time has never been more precious.
“It was funny, at noon I was in Tampa at the Mofitt Cancer Institute for a doctor’s appointment,” he said. “(The doctor) told me I had nine months to live.”
Piccolo was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer only two hours before his wedding this past February.
“Then at 2 p.m. I married my wife. Then at 8 I was in the cage,” he said.
Piccolo, a Tonawanda native who wrestled for the Warriors in the early 90s, shares his name with his famous second cousin Brian Piccolo who played running back for the Chicago Bears in the 1960s and whose life, which ended after his own battle with cancer, was famously chronicled in the TV movie “Brian’s Song.”
Now more than ever Piccolo is cramming as much as possible into every day. He’s cancelled fishing trips with his young sons in the past to get a few more hours of overtime, but now he’s providing in a different way. When he’s not spending time with his family he’s building for their future — and the house is almost finished.
Piccolo, who holds an amateur record of 5-4, lost his fight on his wedding night when he got caught in an arm bar submission in the first round, but the fight of his life was just beginning. It’s a fight he and his family are determined to win.
A NEW OPPONENT
Since receiving the horrible news about the severity of his cancer, Piccolo, with the help of his wife, Shelley Hendrix, and four of his six kids who live with him in Panama City, Fla., has rallied and continued to push forward. Hendrix said all the cancer has done is slow Piccolo down to the speed of a normal human being.
“He actually keeps me going. You forget that he’s even sick,” she said. “He was always the type of person that had a lot of energy. Even at the gym they would always think he was on something. As soon as his feet hit the floor in the morning he’s always going.”
Piccolo barely took a moment after he found out his fate before pushing fear aside, like usual, to comfort those around him. He still has too much left to do.
“At first, of course it had me thinking, but if it happens, it happens. I can’t do nothing but live my life,” he said. “If I sit there and mope about it that won’t do (anything) but bring everybody else down around me. I’m pretty much the rock of my family and if I go down they go down. If I show weakness, they show weakness. I don’t have time to be weak.”
Piccolo has been determined not to let his death sentence and the subsequent chemotherapy and radiation stop him from living his life the way he wants. And what he’s always wanted to do is fight.
The competitiveness and physical nature of MMA drew Piccolo in right away when he was introduced to the sport three years ago. Training to fight helps keep him active and he feels it’s something positive to help keep a good outlook.
Ever since he first started grappling and throwing punches he knew he had found his passion.
“It’s something I like to do and something I’m good at,” he said. “There’s a lot of things I got in the cage that you can’t coach and you can’t learn. I probably have more heart than a lot of the guys out there — and then just the will to win, you know. I didn’t tell nobody for the longest time that I had cancer. I’m going out there with Stage IV cancer and not only competing, but winning. That takes a lot to get in there and do that.”
He’s fought three times since his wedding day throwdown, even managing a win via majority decision in March, a little more than a month after starting treatment.
He fought again in May, but by then the cancer had started to take hold of Piccolo, like an unforgiving, tight triangle choke. He started to shed weight and now has dropped 50 pounds. Tumors have spread to his liver and lymph nodes, and the main tumor sits right on the esophagus, blocking his food passage and making it almost impossible for him to eat solid foods.
On July 20 Piccolo was set to fight for his first-ever MMA title belt at the Florida Fight Foundation’s Cage Wars — it would have been his fourth fight since finding out he had nine months to live. But the week prior to the bout he started a brutal and aggressive chemotherapy treatment that required him to wear a pump all the time for seven straight days in an effort to shrink the main tumor enough to allow some solid foods to pass through.
The tougher regimen took a toll on Piccolo. Most days he spent laying around on the couch trying to get his strength back — battling cold sweats and a complete energy depletion. He said one of the hardest parts of the ordeal has been dealing with the physical limitations, but nothing is as difficult as preparing his family for what’s to come.
“The hardest part is knowing my wife and kids one day ain’t going to have me,” he said. “I’m not scared to die, but knowing my boys and children will be without a daddy … I’m trying to do the best I can while I’m here to prepare them for it. It’s why I’m trying to get this house done. Trying to prepare them so it’s not as hard as it’s going to be.”
For those who know Piccolo, his resilience, even in the face of death, is no revelation. He’s always been a fighter.
Piccolo made a name for himself in Tonawanda as a wrestler at the high school. He joined the elite 100-win club in the second-to-last match of his senior season, a feat he was able to accomplish in only three years.
After getting cut from the basketball team as a freshman at THS, Piccolo walked in to the wrestling room and asked for a chance to go out for the team. Matt Hambrel, who later coached Piccolo on varsity, was the JV coach at the time, and asked the young, ambitious grappler, who would go on to earn a No. 1 ranking in Western New York his senior season, if he had any experience.
“(We) asked him what his background was and he said, ‘I wrestled my dad in the living room.’ (The coaches) looked at each other and said, ‘Oh boy, what are we getting into?’,” said Hambrel, who called Piccolo one of the toughest kids he ever coached. “But (wrestling) basically turned him around. He won 100 matches, which back then you were lucky to get it in four seasons because you didn’t wrestle as much. Nowadays you wrestle so much that 100 wins is pretty common. To do it in three seasons that he did it in was pretty amazing. … He was well-respected by his teammates and by other coaches in Buffalo.”
Piccolo wrestled a few matches his freshman year, but almost all of his 100 wins came in his final three seasons.
Promoter Don Lilly of Victory MMA, based in North Tonawanda and billed as one of the top MMA gyms in New York State, knows better than anybody how tough Piccolo is on the mat and in the cage. The two former teammates at THS were both captains for the Warriors their senior season and Lilly has booked Piccolo to fight three separate times on TNT Fight Series cards.
Lilly said wrestling changed Piccolo’s life and helped him realize his potential.
“The kid went from nothing, (after growing up) in Niagara Falls, and he was doing the wrong things and had an attitude in the hallway,” Lilly said. “Then he started wrestling and really buckled down and took the sport seriously. … He showed that he had that fighting spirit in him. It’s equivalent to today with what’s going on in his life, and the fact that he still wants to step into the cage and fight to prove to people that you take what life gives you and you roll with the punches.”
LEARNING TO COUNTER-PUNCH
Hambrel, who moved on to coach at Cheektowaga after his time at Tonawanda, has kept in contact with Piccolo and said that besides being a terrific athlete, Piccolo is a great person and father.
Piccolo has made his fair share of mistakes, Hambrel said, but what makes him so special is the way he’s always come back an even better person. It’s one of the reasons he’s bloomed into such an outstanding father and role model for his children.
“I have blessing after blessing,” Piccolo said. “I can’t count all the blessings I have right now, even with being in the situation I’m in right now. I still have it better than most. That’s a result of helping people out and being a good person.”
MAKING THE MOST OF WHAT’S LEFT
Piccolo’s demeanor outside the cage is a complete contrast to the aggressive and physical competitor he transforms into when he’s locked behind the fencing. Hendrix said that he is always eager to help anybody, and that he is always looking for ways to bring people together.
In Lilly’s first conversation with Piccolo after hearing the news, the conversation quickly moved from Brian’s battle to the rest of the people in his life and how his fight with cancer affects them. He wants to set a good example for his boys.
“When I talk to him he tells me he just wants to show his kids that life is short but that he won’t give up,” Lilly said. “(His kids will) always know their father fought ‘til the end. Who knows what’s going to happen in the next year with Brian Piccolo? But I think the mark that he’s left on his kids, the Tonawanda community and the people he wrestled with and in MMA — he’s touched a lot of people.”
Piccolo hopes to be able to fight again sometime this month as long as training goes well and his health cooperates. In the meantime he’s hard at work on the days he’s capable, building a house for his family and cherishing every moment he has left with everybody in his life.
“Don’t take nothing for granted. You never know what you can be doing tomorrow,” Piccolo said. “You never know what’s going to happen to you so always be prepared for whatever is coming. … Just don’t take nothing for granted. Love the ones around you as much as you can.”
Matt Parrino is the Sports Editor of the Tonawanda News. Contact him at 693-1000 ext. 4117 and find him on Twitter @MattParrino.
How you can help Brian Piccolo and his family
• There has been an account set up with Innovations Federal Credit Union. Donations can be made to help Brian build the rest of his house. The name of the account is "Benefit Account for Brian Piccolo," and the account number is 0052247911.
Innovations has several branches located throughout Bay County:
910 Thomas Drive, Panama City Beach, FL 32408
700 W. 23rd Street, Panama City, FL 32405
625 Jenks Avenue, Panama City, FL 32401
2250 S. Highway 77, Lynn Haven, FL 32444 864
N. Tyndall Parkway, Callaway, FL 32404
17900 Panama City Beach Parkway, Panama City, Florida 32413
• There will be a benefit for Piccolo on Sept. 7 at 4 p.m. It will be held in Tonawanda and tickets will be $20 pre-sale or $25 at the door. For more information please visit the Facebook page: Benefit for Brian Piccolo.