Return to Winooski Park
Sentimentality was never one of Andy Robustelli’s strongest suits. Only when it was relevant to a conversation might he mention having grown up in a predominantly Italian neighborhood on the West Side of Stamford, Connecticut, in a six-family tenement. Nor would he talk much about his service during World War II as a teenage water tender and gunner aboard the destroyer escort William C. Cole, a small, top-heavy fighting ship that saw considerable action in the South Pacific. Later in his life, the same thing would be true of his playing days in the National Football League, which, glorious as they were, he was disinclined to talk about. Indeed, whenever anyone would bring up his Hall of Fame career or anything relating to football, Robustelli, who by then had become the head of a highly successful business conglomerate, would usually say, “I’m a businessman now, not a football player, and I’d much rather talk about business.”
Despite that lack of sentimentality, Robustelli could not help but feel a twinge of nostalgia when he drove onto the campus of Saint Michael’s College in the Winooski Park section of Colchester, Vermont, to join the New York Giants of the NFL in late July of 1956 after having been traded by the Los Angeles Rams—indeed, offered to the virtually incredulous Giants because he’d had the audacity to ask the Rams if he could report to training camp a few days late after his wife had given birth to their fourth child. Such was the way of the world in the twelve-team NFL of 1956, when players’ salaries averaged less than $10,000, there was no players’ association, free agency did not exist (meaning that players, no matter their stature or the length of their tenure, had no say as to which teams they played for), and players negotiated their own contracts. As Robustelli was to recall in 2007, during his thirteen years in the NFL, not a single player ever held out. “It was a different time,” he said. “Nobody was making much money, and you might ask for more than what they offered, but you usually signed a contract even after you got to training camp.”
One of Robustelli’s teammates with the Giants, Alex Webster, said it often was a take-it-or-leave-it situation as far as management was concerned. “There were only twelve teams and about four hundred players when we were playing,” Webster, an outstanding running back, recalled. “That meant a lot of good football players were available who would be willing to play for less than guys in the NFL, and the owners knew it. So when it came to salaries, you didn’t have much choice. So you usually took what they offered. But I must say that the Giants were very good in that respect.”
But if Robustelli remembered Winooski Park, followers of the Saint Michael’s football team certainly remembered him as a football and baseball player for Arnold College who once drove a baseball into the centerfield fence, five hundred feet from home plate, and his prowess as a two-way end and sometimes linebacker while playing against Saint Michael’s teams from 1947 to 1951. Then, too, it was at Saint Michael’s in October of 1950 that Robustelli, as a twenty-four-year-old senior at Arnold, broke his leg on the second-to-last play of what turned out to be his final college football game—and, it appeared to him and even his biggest supporters, his last football game, period. “I had some pleasant and unpleasant memories about the place, but I surely never expected to be back practicing with the Giants on the same field where I had broken a leg,” Robustelli recalled.
The thirty-year-old Robustelli was hardly the only new player turning out for the opening training camp session on the small but picturesque Saint Michael’s campus, but he was one of the most popular among fans, along with All-Pro halfback Frank Gifford, thirty-five-year-old quarterback Charlie Conerly, and Kyle Rote, who in 1953 had been converted from halfback to a wide receiver because of injuries to both knees suffered during his first two years with the Giants.
Certainly none of the other sixty-odd players reporting for preseason practice had ever played at Saint Michael’s, but they were an astonishingly talented group. Defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski had been obtained from the Pittsburgh Steelers after playing with the Washington Redskins and at the University of Maryland. Halfback Gene Filipski, after being caught up in a 1951 cribbing scandal at West Point, attended Villanova University and had been traded to the Giants by the Cleveland Browns a few weeks before Robustelli’s arrival. Defensive back Ed Hughes had been a teammate of Robustelli’s with the Rams after playing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tulsa.
Two weeks after training camp began, they would be joined by the rookies: running back Henry Moore, the Giants’ number one draft choice, who would wind up carrying the ball only twice for a net loss of 2 yards in his rookie year before being traded to the Baltimore Colts; defensive linemen Robert Lee “Sam” Huff and Jim Katcavage; punter Don Chandler and offensive end Hank Burnine, who had played at Arkansas, West Virginia, Dayton, Florida, and Missouri, respectively. They all had been selected to play in the then-annual College All-Star Game against the previous year’s NFL champion—in this case, the Cleveland Browns, who demolished the All-Stars 28–0. They all had heard of Robustelli, but not of his alma mater; Arnold College, which, like Saint Michael’s, played on the lowest rung of the college football ladder and was barely known even in Connecticut, though it had existed since 1921—first in New Haven and then on the shores of Long Island Sound in the town of Milford, about ten miles from New Haven—as a physical education school with an enrollment of about five hundred students. At that Arnold had resurrected its football program in 1947 after abandoning it during World War II.
In one of the most remarkable success stories in NFL history, Robustelli in 1951 made the improbable jump from little Arnold College to a starting position as a defensive end with a Los Angeles Rams team that not only won the NFL championship but is still regarded as one of the best professional football teams of all time. It was comprised of such perennial All-Pros as Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch, and Tom Fears, as well as Tank Younger, the first player from a historically all-black school—in his case, Grambling State University—to play in the NFL; “Deacon Dan” Towler; and Glenn Davis, the former Army star halfback and Heisman Trophy winner. Though Robustelli had been named to the Associated Press’s Little all-America team while at Arnold, not many football people noticed or were impressed, given that Arnold’s opponents usually included similarly small schools such as Saint Michael’s, American International College, New Haven State Teachers College, Wagner College, Montclair State, and Adelphi College. One of those who had noticed, though, was Lou DeFilippo, a former Giants guard from New Haven, who had become an Eastern scout for the Rams in addition to coaching the line at Fordham.
DeFilippo was one of about a hundred part-time scouts—or “bird dogs,” as they were called—whom the Rams had hired to seek out talent at small schools like Arnold. The idea belonged to Dan Reeves, the co-owner of the Rams and a visionary who was convinced there was a wealth of unknown football talent in the hundreds of small colleges under the radar of the national media and thus unpublicized, and, on a national scale, unnoticed. Reeves’s efforts got a further boost when Tex Schramm, a former sports editor in Austin, Texas, whom he had hired as a publicity man, got the idea of sending out letters to football coaches at hundreds of small colleges in the country, asking them to list the five best players their teams had played against that year. Robustelli almost assuredly was listed in some of the responses, but indications are that DeFilippo was largely responsible for bringing the end from Arnold College to the Rams’ attention.
In his reports, DeFilippo had raved about the 220-pound Robustelli’s pass-catching ability, his deadly tackling, his remarkable punt-blocking skills, and his speed and agility. “He’d be good against anybody,” DeFilippo was to report to the Rams, “and he’s definitely worth a look.” Eventually the Rams took a look, dispatching end coach Red Hickey, who later became the head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, to Winooski Park to watch Robustelli in what became his last college game. As it was, he saw Robustelli enjoy one of his best games, catching a half dozen passes, making about twice as many tackles, and blocking several punts before breaking his leg. Hickey had seen more than enough and gave the Rams hierarchy a rave review, adding that Lou DeFilippo knew what he was talking about. As a result, the Rams proceeded to pick Robustelli in the nineteenth round of the 1951 NFL draft, in which each team selected thirty players. All eighteen players that the Rams chose ahead of Robustelli were from nationally known schools, but only eight made the team.
None of the veteran Rams expected the unknown rookie to make the talent-laden squad. No way was he going to beat out Crazylegs Hirsch or Tom Fears at offensive end or veterans Jack Zilly and Larry Brink at defensive end. But Zilly, the right end, broke a leg during training camp, giving Robustelli the chance to validate everything Lou DeFilippo and Red Hickey had said about him.
But Robustelli had not played organized football until his senior year at Stamford High School. And after playing one season at a military prep school on Long Island in 1943, he had not suited up again until four years later, after his discharge from the navy. The young man was so unsure whether or not he should try out for the Rams that he accepted an offer from the New York Giants baseball team to try out at the Polo Grounds in June of 1951. A third baseman who hit both for average (nearly .400) and power at Arnold College, Robustelli so impressed Giants scouts that he was offered a contract to play with the Giants’ Class AA Southern Association team in Knoxville, Tennessee, for $400 a month. The offer was tempting, especially since Robustelli had grown up as an ardent Giants baseball fan.
By then, too, Robustelli had sought out the advice of J. Walter Kennedy, a public relations executive in New York and sports columnist for the Stamford Advocate with strong connections in the sporting world, as to whether he should accept the Rams’ invitation to training camp. Kennedy, who would go on to become mayor of Stamford and then commissioner of the National Basketball Association, advised against it, recommending instead that Robustelli, by then the father of a year-old son, accept an offer to teach physical education and coach football at a high school in Meriden, Connecticut. “Stick to the teaching and coaching by all means,” Kennedy told Robustelli. “You’ve got a wife and a baby, so you can’t afford to gamble on something as chancy as professional football—certainly not with your small-college background.”
That night, Robustelli, still undecided, told his father, Lucien, a neighborhood barber who charged twenty cents for a haircut, what Kennedy had told him. “He ?didn’t really understand sports,” Robustelli later explained, “but he said, ‘You’ve got to take a chance. If you don’t, you’ll spend the rest of your life wondering whether you could have made it. But then, you’ve got to make up your own mind.’ ”
And make up his own mind Robustelli did: to take a chance, as his father had suggested. He decided that he was capable of playing at any level, and that if necessary, he could raise his game even higher than it had been at Arnold College. After telling his mentor, Kennedy, of his decision, Robustelli flew to California on July 17, on what most Stamford sports followers thought was a quixotic adventure—a big fish from a little pond would be diving into a sea full of sharks. No way, most of his Connecticut friends thought, was Robustelli going to make it with a team that had played in the previous year’s NFL championship and was favored to win the title in 1951.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Giants Among Men by Jack Cavanaugh. Copyright © 2008 by Jack Cavanaugh. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.