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Remembering former Giants DT Dick Modzelewski

Little Mo was part of one of the greatest Giants’ defensive units ever

1965 Philadelphia #36 - courtesy Barry Shuck

The New York Football Giants are responsible for the tradition of folks in the stands chanting, “De-fense! De-fense! De-fense!” This began in 1956 because the Giants had so many stars on the defense and basically controlled the outcome of many a contest. Before then, only offensive players were the darlings of the crowd as well as the newspapers.

One of those stars was a DT by the name of Dick Modzelewski. On Friday, Richard Blair Modzelewski passed away at his home in Eastlake, Ohio at the age of 87. They called him “Little Mo” because of his older brother Ed who also played in the NFL. He grew up in Pennsylvania the son of Polish immigrants where his father was a coal miner.

In 1955, the defense played a 5-2-4 formation which was held over from former head coach Steve Owen who retired after the 1953 season and was then hired as head scout for the franchise. CB Tom Landry was then installed as the defensive coordinator and was a player/coach until 1956 when he hung up his cleats to devote his attention to coaching full-time. Jim Lee Howell was hired as head coach.

In the 1956 NFL draft, the Giants selected a center from West Virginia in the third-round named Sam Huff. After struggling to learn the offense with only a 235-pound frame, Landry liked Huff’s mean streak and ability to follow instructions and asked Huff to play linebacker. In round four, the team had selected DE Jim Katcavage. They also made a trade with the Los Angeles Rams for DE Andy Robustelli. Modzelewski was added to this mix in a trade with the Detroit Lions and suddenly the defense was stocked with players such as LB Bill Svoboda, CB Emlen Tunnell, DT Rosey Grier, S Jimmy Patton, and CB Dick Nolan. Suddenly, the Giants’ defense was the finest in the NFL.

Landry had just installed his own defense which he labeled the 4-3. The front four were Walt Yowarsky, Modzelewski, Grier and Robustelli. The linebackers were Svoboda, Huff and Harland Svare while the defensive backfield consisted of Ed Hughes, Nolan, Tunnell and Patton.

The club went 8-3-1 and won the Eastern Conference. They were matched up with the Chicago Bears in the NFL Championship Game. The two teams had met during the regular season five weeks earlier in Chicago and had played to a 17-17 tie, a game in which the Giants had led 17-0.

The 1956 NFL Championship Game was played at Yankee Stadium in New York, and the temperature at game time was 20 degrees. The field was a complete sheet of ice while 56,836 brave souls sat in the stands. A cold wind was blowing in from the bleachers situated in centerfield. The Bears had the league’s best scoring offense.

The 1934 NFL Championship Game is well-known for being the “Sneakers Game” in which at halftime the Giants’ players switched from cleats to basketball sneakers and won the game. Robustelli owned a sporting goods store and Howell had asked him to get enough sneakers for the entire squad if needed. After warmups for the 1956 Championship Game, Howell got DB Hughes to go onto the field in a pair of cleats while RB Gene Filipski ran around in sneakers.

The end result was that the Giants once again wore the sneakers and dominated the Bears 47-7 for their fourth NFL title. For Little Mo, that would become his first of two NFL titles.

1963 Kahn’s Weiners football card - courtesy Barry Shuck

Modzelewski was drafted in the second-round of the 1953 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins. Little Mo had instant conflicts with head coach Joe Kuharich and after two seasons, Modzelewski signed with Calgary of the Canadian Football League. The Redskins filed an injunction to stop him from leaving his contract and Calgary rescinded their offer.

Instead of playing him, the Redskins traded his rights to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In those days, the Steelers were always the worst and most dysfunctional club in the NFL, so when a player was traded there it was like going to Siberia. The following year, the Steelers traded Little Mo to the Lions who then traded him to the Giants three days later.

Little Mo was an instant starter and a key component to the Giants. Despite other defensive players that received quite a bit of attention such as Huff and Robustelli, he was the rock of the center of the defensive front. During the eight years he played in New York, the Giants would play in six NFL Championship Games, with 1956 the only title won. He even opened up a local restaurant.

Beginning in 1962, now-Giants head coach Allie Sherman began to trade off the key defensive players for more offensive firepower as he believed anyone could be plugged in and play defense. LB Cliff Livingston was the first one traded to the Minnesota Vikings, followed by Grier to the Rams, and then Little Mo was traded to the Cleveland Browns for WR Bobby Crespino.

Known as being tough and reliable, the news of Little Mo’s trade shocked Huff. Because of the trade, Huff then went into Giants’ owner Wellington Mara’s office and fumed about the changes, and then asked Mara if he was next in line for being involved in a trade. Mara assured him that he was safe and a valued member of the Giants. One month later while eating in Little Mo’s restaurant, Huff received a phone call from his wife informing him he had been traded to the Redskins.

In the 1976 book written by Gerald Eskenazi entitled They Were Giants in Those Days, Mara spoke about the various trades and admitted that he was influenced way too much by Sherman who hated defense and only wanted to focus on the offense and scoring. Mara mentioned the Huff and Modzelewski trades as the two which eventually dismantled the Giants from going to the NFL title game three years in a row, to the beginning of the “Wilderness Years.”

Modzelewski would win his second NFL Championship in 1964 with the Browns and retired after the 1966 season. He became the Browns’ defensive line coach and then defensive coordinator in 1976. In 1977, Cleveland fired head coach Forrest Gregg and named Little Mo as the interim head coach for the final game of the season. The following year new head coach Sam Rutigliano offered him the DL coaching position. Instead, he accepted the DC position with the Giants. After that, he had coaching positions with the Cincinnati Bengals, Green Bay Packers and the Lions before retiring in 1989.

Dick Modzelewski was inducted into the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and then the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993 (University of Maryland). Little Mo was named to the 1952 College All-America Team and was the starter in eight NFL championship games, a record he now shares with New England Patriots QB Tom Brady.

Modzelewski’s funeral is October 26, 2018 in Mentor, Ohio. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy Jane, and four children.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association