Andy Robustelli, Giants’ Hall of Fame Defensive End, Dies at 85

By RICHARD GOLDSTEIN  New York Times  Published: May 31, 2011

Andy Robustelli, the Giants’ Hall of Fame defensive end in their glory years of the late 1950s and early ’60s, when shouts of “DEE-fense” rang from the stands at Yankee Stadium, died on Tuesday in Stamford, Conn., his hometown. He was 85.

His death, at Stamford Hospital, resulted from complications of recent bladder surgery, a daughter-in-law, Terry Robustelli, said.

In the autumn of 1956, the Giants, one of the N.F.L.’s oldest franchises, finally vied with baseball’s Yankees as a glamour attraction on New York’s sports scene. The Giants’ offense featured stars like Charlie Conerly, Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Alex Webster and Roosevelt Brown.

But it was the defensive alignment, featuring Robustelli, Roosevelt Grier, Dick Modzelewski and Jim Katcavage on the line, Sam Huff at middle linebacker and a secondary led by Emlen Tunnell, that captured the fans’ imagination. They evoked a celebrity aura, captured in the television documentary “The Violent World of Sam Huff.”

“Never in the history of football had fans gone to a stadium to root for a ‘DEE-fense,’ ” Gifford, the Hall of Fame halfback and receiver, recalled in his memoir, “The Whole Ten Yards.”

Robustelli was a 19th-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Rams in 1951 out of tiny Arnold College in Milford,Conn., but he became a hard-hitting tackler, at 6 feet 1 and 230 pounds, and a superb pass-rusher with a keen sense of how an opponent’s plays were developing.

He played in eight N.F.L. championship games, two with the Rams and six with the Giants after joining them in 1956. He was a first-team All-Pro six times, received the Maxwell Club’s Bert Bell Award as the N.F.L.’s most outstanding player in 1962 and recovered 22 fumbles. He missed only one game in his 14 seasons and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971.

Robustelli was the Giants’ director of operations, essentially the general manager, from 1974 to 1978, when he tried with little success to rebuild a losing team. The Giants’ defensive line of Robustelli at right end, Grier at right tackle, Modzelewski at left tackle and Katcavage at left end played together from 1956 to 1962. “We didn’t want — we were afraid — to have substitutions, afraid they’d take our job away,” Robustelli told Gerald Eskenazi, a reporter for The New York Times, in his book “There Were Giants in Those Days.”

“We just didn’t want anybody else to have a shot at it, so we stayed in there all the time.” Tom Landry, the Giants’ defensive coordinator in Robustelli’s heyday, remembered his devotion to the game. “He put more book time into his work than the others,” The Hartford Courant once quoted Landry as saying. “He thought all the time. Not just on the field, but in his room, at the dining table.”

Andrew Richard Robustelli was born on Dec. 6, 1925, in Stamford,Conn., where his father, Lucien, was a barber, and his mother, Katie, was a seamstress. He played football, basketball and baseball at StamfordHigh School, served in the Navy during World War II, then played end on offense and defense at Arnold, a school with only a few hundred students. (It was later absorbed by the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.)

As a rookie with the Rams, Robustelli had virtually no chance of beating out the star receivers Tom Fears and Elroy (Crazy Legs) Hirsch but won a job at defensive end for the Rams team that captured the 1951 N.F.L. championship.

When he was traded to the Giants in 1956, he became a key figure in a 4-3 alignment — four down linemen and three linebackers — installed by Landry. The Giants defeated the Chicago Bears, 47-7, in the 1956 N.F.L. championship game on a frozen Yankee Stadium field, aided by sneakers from Robustelli’s sporting goods store. They won five division titles between 1958 and 1963 but lost in the championship game each time.

Robustelli owned a travel agency and sports marketing business in Stamford after retiring as a player after the 1964 season, then returned to the Giants in 1974 as director of operations to run a team that had won only two games the previous season.

He soon hired Bill Arnsparger, the architect of the Miami Dolphins’ defense, to replace the former Giants halfback Alex Webster as head coach, but the Giants continued to founder.

Their woes were climaxed in November 1978 by “the fumble,” a botched Giants handoff that was run into the end zone by the Philadelphia Eagles’ Herm Edwards for a game-winning touchdown on the final play. John McVay, who had replaced Arnsparger two years earlier, was fired after that season and Robustelli, who had been planning to leave, returned to his business interests after five losing seasons.

His wife, Jeanne, died in April. According to a family death notice for Jeanne posted at the time by the Lacarenza Funeral Home in Stamford, they had sons Richard, Robert, Thomas, Christopher, Michael and John, and daughters Laura Salvatore, Andra Compo and Tina Salvatore; 29 grandchildren and 6 great-grandchildren.

Long after his playing days ended, Robustelli reflected on his celebrity teammates, and he recalled how a spirited rivalry existed among the offensive players and the defense. “I don’t think the two ever got close,” he told The Times in 1985.

As for the defense’s mystique, Gifford wrote in his memoir how “everyone knew who Andy Robustelli was and that he had a wife and three kids and lived in Connecticut” and how “Sam Huff even made the cover of Time magazine.”

“If they made one of their famous goal-line stands, we’d hear about it for a week,” Gifford remembered. “Or if they recovered a fumble, Sam might walk by me as I started onto the field and say, ‘See if you can hold ’em for a while. ”

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About Jeff Nixon

Jeff was a first team consensus All-American from the University of Richmond in 1978. He is 7th in NCAA history with 23 career interceptions. Played for the Buffalo Bills 1979-1984. Led the team with 6 interceptions in Rookie Year. Holds Bills record for 4 takeaways in a single game - 3 interceptions and a fumble recovery. Tied Bills record with four consecutive games with an interception. After 5 knee surgeries Jeff retired from pro football in 1985. He worked for 13 years (1988-2000) as the Youth Bureau Director for Buffalo and Erie County. He has worked for the past 11 years as the Youth Employment Director for Buffalo. Plays guitar and was voted best R&B guitar player by Buffalo Nightlife Magazine in 2006, 2007 and 2008.

Posted on May 31, 2011, in NFL Alumni News. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Mary H. Robustelli

    Dear Jeff,
    Thank you for writing such a great article about my uncle Andy Robustelli. I never get tired of hearing about the game they played wearing sneakers. Andy was a gentle giant for sure. I have fond memories of being at his house swimming in his pool with my cousins. He greeted us with a big smile, a kiss and gave us a big Italian style pinch on the cheek. That pinch always hurt but I knew he loved me!

    Like Andy, my father, Lucian (Lou) Robustelli also worked in the community with both privledged and under privledged kids.

    My father was also an NFL Alumni and played for the Steelers for a year and was forced to retire after a neck injury. He chose to go into coaching so our family moved to El Paso, TX where my father taught U.S. History and coached football for 3 different high school in El Paso . He was a great teacher & coach and was loved by all.

    We’ve been to several reunions in El Paso held by the various schools and some of the fondest memories the players have are when Uncle Andy would come to visit us because he would go with my father to his football practices to meet and work with the players.

    They told me how honored they were to meet him and how special they felt that Andy would take the time to come and meet them and teach them some of the plays that the NY Giants used. It was and still is such a thrill in their hearts.

    Anday and Lou were always in back ground and kept out of the lime light. They always remained humble. They don’t make players like that anymore.

    Thanks again for a great article. I loved it.

    Sincerely,
    Mary Robustelli

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