Hitting the Bricks at Wake Forest University

Moments after the last box is unloaded on move-in day at college, wise parents have The Talk. You know the drill: Eat right. Do your laundry. Hit the ground running. Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, makes that third one easy.

Not long after the semester begins, everybody hits the ground running. Students, faculty and staff participate in an eight-hour race called Hit the Bricks, which raises money for the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund at the Wake Forest Baptist Comprehensive Cancer Center.

In all, more than 100 teams representing between 1,200 and 1,400 participants run a relay race on the clay paver pathway that encircles Hearn Plaza on the upper quad of the Wake Forest campus. The event is held in honor of Brian Piccolo, a 1965 graduate of Wake Forest, who was an All-American football star for the Demon Deacons.

Piccolo became a running back for the Chicago Bears, and died in 1970, at the age of 26, of embryonal cell carcinoma, which is closely linked to testicular cancer. But more than that, Piccolo has earned a place in our national consciousness for his close friendship with Chicago Bears great Gayle Sayers, which was memorialized in a 1971 made-for-TV movie, “Brian’s Song.” In it, Piccolo’s mild temperament, kindness and sense of humor, along with his courageous outlook on life, were on full display.

Piccolo and Sayers

ESPN.com reports that although Piccolo led the nation in rushing and scoring as a senior at Wake Forest in 1964, beating out Sayers and others, he wasn’t drafted. Scouts believed the 5-foot-11, 190-pound back wasn’t big enough or fast enough. The Chicago Bears signed Piccolo as a free agent.

Piccolo spent a year on the Bears’ taxi squad before rushing 258 times for 927 yards, scoring four touchdowns. Although he spent four seasons with the team, he never escaped Sayers’ overwhelming shadow and didn’t live long enough to achieve his dream of becoming a great NFL running back. Piccolo and Sayers roomed together in training camp, which was one of the first times in the National Football League that a white player and a black player roomed together.

The two and their wives became close friends, a bond that was cemented through practical jokes. Piccolo convinced Sayers that the coach was hard of hearing, resulting in Sayers shouting at him during a meeting; and Sayers got him back by putting a plateful of mashed potatoes in his seat when Piccolo rose to sing the Wake Forest fight song in training camp, which all first-year players were required to do.

Years later, Sayers said in an interview that Piccolo was a better-than-average football player who a coach couldn’t cut. “You could call on him on third down with two yards to go and he would get it, somehow,” said Sayers. “You could put him in to play a whole ballgame and he would have a grade of 95 or 100. He would not make mistakes; he was a student of the game. He would do what it takes to get the job done. He had less talent (than many) but he would stick around and work hard at it.”

Success Through Effort

Brad Shugoll, associate director of service and leadership at Wake Forest University, said that idea of success through effort is a lesson that the school wants to teach. And so is the idea of using what you have. Wake Forest University uses what it has: A wide oval walkway paved with clay pavers, a determined group of participants across students, faculty and staff and a cause that has affected nearly everyone, which combines to make a positive change.

“It really does have an influence on a young student, to show them how they can make their place in the world and contribute to others through philanthropy and other ways, as well,” said Shugoll.

The race itself involves pledges for the number of laps run. In 2003, students held the first annual Hit the Bricks relay race, raising $3,000. In its sixteen-year history, participants have run 300,213 laps and raised $404,843. In all, more than $3 million has been raised for the Piccolo Fund since 1980.

Not Just for Runners

Runners navigate their way around Hearn Plaza. Some run, and some walk. Some run in a three-legged race. Some are pushed in office chairs or ride on carts, which look suspiciously as though they were temporarily liberated from the cafeteria or the library. One entry from an outdoor club is a kayak that’s been fitted with wheels and is rowed around the plaza.

Each runner picks up a backpack filled with sand that has a sensor in it. The sensor tracks who the participating team is and how many laps have been completed. Each has to run underneath a tent that reads the sensor to keep up with how many laps have been run.

Winners win a coveted trophy, a brick. It’s an actual Pine Hall Brick Company clay paver, identical to the pavers used to pave Hearn Plaza. The words “Hit the Bricks 2019” are laser-cut into them. The race is run from 11 a.m. until 7 p.m. , when a silent lap is walked and a brief service of remembrance is held in front of Wait Chapel.

“It’s an opportunity for students, faculty and staff to share their stories and to think about the day, why they’ve come out, why they’ve spent eight hours running and how it affects our community at large,” said Shugoll.

Providing Seed Funding

The funds that are raised are used generally for seed funding at the Comprehensive Cancer Center at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, to help prove the justification for later grants for research or other similar purposes down the road. A recent example was two years ago, when the money from the Piccolo Fund was used to hire a proposed Hispanic patient navigator—a person fluent in Spanish trained to help cancer patients navigate their way through the system.

“They saw evidence that it was effective and now it is a fully funded position,” said Shugoll. Participants say that it’s a great way to start a semester, to take a quick break before studying and tests and exams fill up your schedule. Before you know it, there’s Thanksgiving and Christmas and the start of another semester.

But given that Wake Forest believes in keeping students in motion by hitting the bricks in the fall, it’s not about to let them lounge around in the spring. March is a good time to hit the dance floor. Students, faculty and staff look forward to Wake ‘N Shake, a 12-hour dance marathon that’s organized by the Wake Forest and Winston-Salem communities. In 2018, 1,500 students, alumni and faculty members danced to raise a little over $391,000, again for the Brian Piccolo Cancer Research Fund.

A Campus-wide Tradition

According to the Wake N’ Shake website, over the past 12 years, Wake ‘N Shake has turned into a campus-wide tradition that students and faculty look forward to all year long. It is now the school’s largest philanthropy event, both in number of participants and amount raised.

“We attribute this profound success to an incredibly compassionate student body, with supportive networks of family and friends who are eager to support this worthwhile cause,” states the website. “One of the taglines of our event is ‘it’s about being a part of something bigger than yourself,’ which proves true year after year.”

About the Author
Walt Steele is chief operating officer for Pine Hall Brick Company, America’s largest manufacturer of genuine clay pavers. For more information, Steele can be reached at (800) 334-8689 and by email at waltsteele@pinehallbrick.com. For more information, please visit www.PineHallBrick.com.