march 2011

andy robustelli
Andy Robustelli: ‘He thought all the time,’ said his defensive coordinator Tom Landry.

Giant Among Men

Remembering Andy Robustelli

December 6, 1925-May 31, 2011

There was a time when arenas and stadiums packed full of cheering fans did not chant “DEE-FENSE! DEE-FENSE!” in unison at critical junctures of an athletic contest. Frank Gifford, the New York Giants’ glamour boy halfback and receiver who is now in the Hall of Fame, knows when it all started. Writing in his memoir The Whole Ten Yards, Gifford says: “Never in the history of football had fans gone to a stadium to root for DEE-fense.” The defense the fans cheered for was his own New York Giants’ defense that came on the field when Gifford and his offensive teammates were coming off, either after a score or after failing to put the ball through the goalposts or across the goal line. Gifford remembered that group as being extraordinarily proud and equally skilled, and ferocious. It had the great defensive back Emlen Tunnel. It had the star linebacker Sam Huff throwing his body at whatever moved without concern for his own well being and exhibiting such a heady blend of exceptional athleticism and great football instincts that CBS filmed a whole documentary about him, The Violent World of Sam Huff. More than anything, the defense had a true fearsome foursome up front upending the opposing offense’s game plan and making it possible for the likes of Huff and Tunnel to play smarter, more aggressive football. The offense may have had Gifford, Charlie Conerly, Kyle Rote, Alex Webster and Roosevelt Brown, but the defensive line had Roosevelt Grier, Dick Modzelewski, Jim Katcavage and a strong, inexhaustible, proud defensive end in Andy Robustelli, a 19th round draft choice out of tiny Arnold College in Milford, CT, who would become one of the greatest pass rushers in pro football history and be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971. The Giants’ defensive front four, under the astute guidance of defensive coordinator Tom Landry, was so dominant, Sunday in and Sunday out, that it singlehandedly made playing defense fashionable, even sexy, and paved the way for the great front fours to come: the Los Angeles Rams’ “Fearsome Foursome” of the ‘60s and early ‘70s; the Pittsburgh Steelers’ “Steel Curtain” of the Super Bowl ‘70s champions; the New York Jets’ “Sack Exchange” of the 1980s; and the various members of the Dallas Cowboys’ Doomsday Defense from the late ‘60s through the 1970s. Not the least of the Giants' accomplishments of the Robustelli era was to put the old, established team on nearly equal footing as a box office attraction in its own city with the New York Yankees’ dynasty teams.

A short bio of Andy Robustelli

During his Giants years, Robustelli played in eight NFL championship games (and two more with the Los Angeles Rams prior to joining the Giants in 1956) and was a first-team All-Pro six times. In 1962 he was awarded the Bert Bell Award as the league’s most outstanding player in a year when he recovered 22 fumbles. In his 14 seasons as a player, his durability became legendary--he missed only one game.

Andy Robustelli died on May 31 in his hometown of Stamford, CT, as a result of complications of recent bladder surgery. He was 85.

Andrew Richard Robustelli was born on Dec. 6, 1925, in Stamford, where his father, Lucien, was a barber, and his mother, Katie, was a seamstress. At Stamford High School he was a three-sport star in baseball, basketball and baseball. After serving in the Navy during World War II, Robustelli entered Arnold College, a school with only a few hundred students that has since been absorbed by the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

Signed by the Rams, Robustelli was hoping to break into the offense as a receiver, but had to contend with stars Tom Fears and Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch for a roster spot. He moved to defense and won the defensive end job on a team that captured the 1951 NFL championship. Traded to the Giants in 1956, he thrived in Tom Landry’s new 4-3 alignment (four down linemen, three linebackers).

When the Giants defeated the Chicago Bears, 47-7, in the 1956 N.F.L. championship game on a frozen Yankee Stadium field, Robustelli’s side business in sporting goods proved pivotal--he supplied the sneakers that afforded the Giants’ players better footing on the icy ground as they veritably glided to victory. The team won five division titles between 1958 and 1963 but lost in the championship game each time.

giantsThe Giants’ front four played together from 1956 to 1962. Robustelli told New York Times reporter Gerald Eskenazi that the he and his linemen mates stayed in the trenches because “we didn’t want--we were afraid--to have substitutions, afraid they’d take our job away. We just didn’t want anybody else to have a shot at it, so we stayed in there all the time.”

In an interview with the Hartford Courant, Landry posited Robustelli as a thinking man’s defensive lineman. “He put more book time into his work than the others,” Landry said. “He thought all the time. Not just on the field, but in his room, at the dining table.”

In the NFL Films production Legacy Of the Giants Defense, Landry said the defensive player’s cohesiveness elevated it above teams that might have had better players up and down the line but lacked the Giants’ esprit de corps.

“They played together probably as well as any team I’ve ever coached,” Landry said. “They had just a sense and feel between each other… It was good talent, but it really wasn’t any better than some of the teams in those days. But their ability to play together and believe in each other was tremendous.

Upon hearing of Robustelli’s passing, Gifford issued a statement saying, in part, “Whereas Tom was the overall defensive coach, Andy basically ran the defensive line along with the linebackers. He was the leader in the clubhouse. He was quiet, but when Andy talked, everyone listened.”

andy robustelli card

After retiring as a player at the end of the 1964 season, Robustelli expanded his business interests, opening a travel agency and a sports marketing business in Stamford. Ten years later, on his return to the Giants as director of operations, he inherited a team that had won only two games the previous season. The team’s downward spiral continued after Robustelli hired Bill Arnsparger, hailed as football’s new genius for his development of the Miami Dolphins’ stingy, hard-hitting defense, to replace former Giant Alex Webster as head coach. Five losing seasons--culminating in November 1978 with the infamous “fumble” after quarterback Joe Pisarcik blew a handoff that was snatched up and returned for a touchdown by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Herm Edwards on the final play--were too much for Robustelli. Coach John McVay, who had been hired to replace Arnsparger two years earlier, was fired at the end of the season, and Robustelli, who had been planning to leave anyway, returned to his outside business interests.

Robustelli is survived by his sons Richard, Robert, Thomas, Christopher, Michael and John; his daughters Laura Salvatore, Andra Compo and Tina Salvatore; 29 grandchildren; and 6 great-grandchildren. His wife, Jeanne, died this past April.

Reflecting on “The Rich Legacy of Andy Robustelli” in the June 1 New York Times, Andy Barall pointed out the larger historical context of the beloved Giant’s tenure on the defensive line: “Andy Robustelli was modest about his achievements. He only reluctantly, and unsentimentally, reminisced about his football days and seemed genuinely surprised when people recognized him. Like his Connecticut license plate, ‘NY81,’ Robustelli will be remembered as the right defensive end of the New York Giants in an era when the nation’s viewing habits in the fall were dramatically changing and pro football was about to become king.”

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