David’s Song

A college friendship with Brian Piccolo led David Zacks into lifelong pro bono work for the American Cancer Society

Published in 2012 Georgia Super Lawyers — March 2012

In 1971, ABC aired Brian’s Song, a made-for-TV movie about the friendship between Gale Sayers, the Hall-of-Fame running back for the Chicago Bears, and Brian Piccolo, the Bears’ backup running back who died of cancer at the age of 26, after the 1969 season. The film touched audiences across the country, but David Zacks was already familiar with Piccolo’s story.

Zacks, a partner at Atlanta’s Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton, met Piccolo at Wake Forest University.

“He was a real cut up, always made you laugh,” Zacks says. “He was the Santa Claus at the frat Christmas party … that kind of guy. I got to know him. And what impacted me was not so much then—although anyone will tell you how wonderful he was—but some years later, after he was playing ball with the Chicago Bears, when I learned that he was fighting cancer and did not survive it. I thought, ‘What a treacherous disease to happen to someone so physically fit and with such a wonderful life in front of him.’ It was like a crime.”

Zacks was an Army lawyer at Fort Gordon when he got the news. “I had to vent, so I volunteered [with the American Cancer Society],” he says. “And over the years, I just never went away. Any organization that doesn’t know what to do with you, they keep you. So I was chairman of the local board, then chairman of the Georgia board, then as things progressed, I was chair of the national board.”

As national ACS chair in 2002, Zacks helped revamp the organization’s Patient Navigator program, which profoundly impacted patients. “When someone is told they have cancer, they really shut down,” he says. “Any of us would. It’s like a massive iceberg out in the ocean, and you need to be navigated around it. Say Mary, a woman with two daughters, is told she has breast cancer. She is taken to an ACS office located in the hospital and a social worker says to her, ‘I’m driving you home.’ And they take that woman home and they explain to her [the upcoming] procedures. One of our volunteers is going to explain to her how to take care of herself. One is going to pick her up at 6 a.m. for her surgeries. Now you have a survivor. Two daughters have a mother and a company still has a productive employee.”

Zacks got others involved in the cause. He made several trips to Ireland with John Seffrin, the organization’s CEO, to promote the ACS’s smoke-free initiative involving former Prime Minister Bertie Ahern, who made Ireland the first smoke-free country in the world. A 10-minute conversation with Katie Couric turned into several hours, and, in the end, Couric helped bring ABC, CBS and NBC together for the Stand Up To Cancer special.

Zacks, a litigator who calls his eclectic, general practice approach to his workload a “little dinosaur,” takes on catastrophic injury, complex business litigation, Native American law and products liability cases. Occasionally, the law and cancer overlap.

“A woman came to me, a smoker, and she was being kicked out of her condo because she wasn’t paying the monthly fee—her money was going to a hospital for chemotherapy,” he says. “So I tried to work out an arrangement with the condo owner’s lawyer. She probably wouldn’t live more than a year, she had life insurance, so why couldn’t we keep her in the condo, give her peace of mind, and we’ll pay all the back condo fees plus interest when she dies?” The condo owner wouldn’t hear of it, but eventually Zacks prevailed. “I took that case on one condition—she either had to pay my entire hourly rate, which was too high, or I would do it for free if she quit smoking. She quit smoking and we became dear friends.” (She died a year after the dispute was resolved.)

For Zacks and the ACS, 2012 could be a big year. “We are transforming the organization, and I believe it will be a different enterprise, and a better enterprise, focused more on the mission than it ever has been before,” he says. “It will be a big change. We will be one national [501(c)(3)] American Cancer Society with regional divisions focused on the mission instead of corporate divisions making bylaws. We will be focused on our volunteers and the mission instead of governance issues.”

Between his practice, the ACS, his family (wife, four sons, two dogs) and his penchant for golf, Zacks juggles a lot. “But I’ll be working till my last breath,” he says. “Brian was the catalyst that never went away.”

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