Robustelli, Andrew ("Andy")

views updated

ROBUSTELLI, Andrew ("Andy")

(b. 6 December 1925 in Stamford, Connecticut), defensive line football player who propelled the New York Giants to the championships in 1956 and to the Eastern Division title every year between 1958 and 1963.

Robustelli's father, Louis, a barber, and mother, Katie Galasso, a seamstress, taught their six children to value diligent effort, family, and religion. At Stamford High School, Robustelli starred in football and baseball. After graduating in 1943, he attended La Salle Military Academy in Oakdale, Long Island, but only for three months. As soon as he reached eighteen, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving in 1944 and 1945. After World War II ended, Robustelli matriculated at Arnold College in Milford, Connecticut, now part of the University of Bridgeport. There he excelled at baseball, batting .400 as a catcher and third baseman, and starring in football, playing sixty minutes a game as a twoway end. He also married Jeanne Dora on 17 July 1948.

Robustelli graduated in 1951 with three choices: he had a physical education degree and offers to teach in high school; the New York Giants wanted him to play Class B baseball in Knoxville, Tennessee; and as a nineteenth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams, he was offered one-way plane fare and $4,200 a year if he made the team.

Robustelli went to Los Angeles. One would have expected his chance of success to be minimal. Small by today's standards, at six feet tall and 220 pounds, he quickly made his presence felt. At his very first practice with the Rams, Robustelli's physical prowess was evident as he stampeded over linemen, harassed passers, and stopped runners in their tracks. It was immediately apparent that the "Iron Man," as he would later be nicknamed, was made of some very tough stuff. He made the team, and with Robustelli at defensive end, the Rams made it all the way to the 1951 championships, where they beat the Cleveland Browns, 24–17. Robustelli went on to spearhead the Rams defense for five seasons.

Then in 1956, with his wife, Jeanne, expecting their fourth child, Robustelli told head coach Sid Gillman that he would be a little late to training camp. Gillman said, "Get to camp or I'm going to trade you." Robustelli, thinking Gillman was bluffing, replied, "If you want to trade me, trade me." The next day, he became a New York Giant. Heading back east to his family, who lived in Stamford, was a welcome move.

If the Rams traded Robustelli because they thought that, at age thirty, he might be slowing down, they were wrong. With the Giants, a team that had always stressed defense, Robustelli starred in the New York spotlight. Tom Landry, the Giants genius defensive coach from 1956 to 1959, admired the way Robustelli combined his athletic skills with intelligence and enthusiasm on the field. For nine seasons, Robustelli anchored a defensive line that was respectfully referred to as the "Fearsome Foursome" (an accolade that also stuck with the Los Angeles Rams' defensive line). Alongside Rosie Grier, Dick Modzelewski, and Jim Katcavage, the Giants front four gave very little ground. Together with the rest of the defense, they earned praise previously reserved for the offense. Cheers of "De-fense! De-fense!" were heard for the first time from the Giants' fans.

In 1959, during a five-game stretch in which the Giants' offense fizzled, the defense gave up only two touchdowns. The Giants won all five games. Toward the end of that streak, with the defense trotting off the field after stopping their opponent repeatedly, a Giant defenseman yelled to his offense, "Hold 'em till we get back."

Jim Brown, the legendary Cleveland Browns running back, called Robustelli "one of the two toughest men I have ever met." (The other was eight-time all pro Gino Marchetti.) In 1960, during a win in Cleveland, the Giants defense held the Browns to an incredible total of four yards rushing. Fierce competitor Bobby Layne, the former Detroit Lions quarterback, said, "Andy hits you so hard your bones rattle."

Robustelli asserted that he performed in an era when players played with pride, dedication, integrity, and loyalty—all for the team. It was before free agency and the astronomical contracts that some say soften an athlete's commitment to the team. Robustelli played professional football for fourteen bruising years—and missed but a single game.

After a game in 1963, Robustelli's knee swelled so much that he couldn't bend it. Mid-week he went to the team doctor and asked him to aspirate the fluid from the knee. The doctor refused and recommended rest. Robustelli then went to the trainer. He too refused, saying, "You're not playing for three weeks." "You're crazy," Robustelli told him, "I can't sit out that long. I want to play this Sunday." The trainer said "No way!" So Robustelli went to his own doctor on Friday afternoon. The knee was aspirated. Robustelli played on Sunday.

In 1964, Robustelli's ninth and final Giants season, he played full-time as well as being the team's defensive coach. That year, his salary was $24,000. In those days, most football players had to work in the off-season. Robustelli built successful businesses in sports marketing and travel services that helped support his wife and their nine children.

In 1966 Robustelli returned to football as the head coach of the Continental Football League's Brooklyn Dodgers. Though the league lasted only one year, Robustelli loved the job and delighted in the fact that several of his players and coaches improved enough to go on to the National Football League (NFL).

A telephone call from New York Giants owner, Wellington Mara, in December 1973 lured Robustelli back to the team, where he served as director of operations from 1974 until the completion of the 1978 season.

Robustelli was a hard-nosed player, and the New York Giants squad that he captained elevated NFL defenses to prominence for the first time. Though his focus was on "the team," his personal accomplishments were extraordinary. During his fourteen-year career, he was named to the Pro Bowl and All-NFL teams seven times. He played in eight championship games. In 1962, at age thirty-seven, the Maxwell Club named him NFL Player of the Year. Robustelli received perhaps his greatest honor when he was enshrined in the National Football League Hall of Fame in 1971.

In Once a Giant, Always … (1987), Robustelli, with sports specialist Jack Clary, presents an in-the-trenches look at Robustelli's distinguished football career. The book touches on his five years with the Los Angeles Rams, but concentrates on his career with the New York Giants, from the Giants' dynasty of the mid-1950s and early 1960s to Robustelli's tenure as director of operations. In Gerald Eskenazi, There Were Giants in Those Days (1976), the excitement of the Giant teams from 1954 to 1963 is rekindled. Richard Whittingham, Giants in Their Own Words (1992), quotes Giants greats, including Robustelli.

Hy Rosen