Andy Robustelli was never the biggest name on the marquee. When he joined Joe Stydahar's Los Angeles Rams in 1951 — a 19th-round draft pick from Arnold College — the club was loaded with four future Hall of Famers (Bob Waterfield, Norm Van Brocklin, Tom Fears and Elroy Hirsch) and a former Heisman Trophy winner (Glenn Davis). When the defensive end was traded to the Giants in 1956, he was asked to fit into Tom Landry's vaunted defense, which boasted several outstanding young linemen and its own pair of future Hall of Famers, Sam Huff and Emlen Tunnell. And when Robustelli was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1971, his bust had to share the stage with those of Vince Lombardi, Jim Brown, Y.A. Tittle and Van Brocklin.
But Robustelli — who passed away at age 85 earlier this week — didn't gain entrance into Canton by way of his name, rather through the unselfish contributions he made to some of pro football greatest teams. Wherever he went, success followed. The teams Robustelli played for during his 14 NFL seasons posted a 114-53-9 record and participated in eight title games.
It's a wonder the Rams let Robustelli go. According to legend, the Connecticut native requested to be closer to the East Coast where he owned a business. In exchange for shipping their 30-year-old star to New York, the Rams received a first-round pick — not a bad return on investment for a former 19th-round selection, but New York clearly walked away with the better end of the deal.
Barely big enough to play safety today, the 6-1, 230-pound end was one of the most respected linemen of his era. "Andy had big hands and he was strong," Huff told a reporter this week. "The best thing he did was rush the quarterback and that's what he loved to do. He'd beat the tackle one-on-one. A lot of times it was the best tackle in football."
Considered a pass-rushing pioneer, Robustelli designed his own plan for gaining strength and speed. "I didn't lift weights," he said in 2008. "Back then the feeling was you'd become muscle-bound and be unable to reach out and grab a runner or jump up and block a pass. I did a lot of running and swimming."
Lined up alongside Jim Katcavage, Dick Modzelewski and 285-pound terror Rosey Grier, Robustelli helped Landry shape the 4-3 defense that the coach would later polish to perfection in Dallas. From 1956-60, the unit ranked among the top three in run defense four times, and allowed just 3.5 yards per carry during that stretch. "Andy was part of what, to me, was the best defense ever put together," Huff said. "… We had the best of the best. And Andy was a leader on that team."
He also was incredibly durable — he missed only one contest in 14 seasons — but also stubborn. "We just didn't want anybody else to have a shot at it, so we stayed in there all the time," he once said of shooing away substitutes.
Robustelli was named to seven Pro Bowl rosters, named first-team All-NFL seven times and collected 22 fumbles in 175 career games. In 1962 he was handed the Bert Bell Award, given to the league's player of the year. For the first 15 years of the award's existence he was the only defensive player to lay claim to it. At the end of the 1962 season, New York lost the first of two consecutive title games to Green Bay. By 1964, the Giants' dynasty was done, and so was Robustelli with football.
After his playing career, Robustelli began a travel business before rejoining the Giants in 1974 as Director of Operations (GM). Already having announced his plans to leave the post following the 1978 season, the Miracle at the Meadowlands left a stain on his tenure in the front office, although Robustelli believed the team's bungle was a bit overstated. "A play like that is part of the game," he told Sports Illustrated in 2001. "I'm somewhat surprised that people are still talking about it."
No one should be surprised that New York fans still talk about Robustelli. He was one of 22 players to be included in the team's ring of honor last fall, and his name often is included in conversations about the greatest Giants of all time.
"He was one of the greatest players in franchise history, and one of the finest, most dignified gentlemen you could ever meet," Giants president and CEO John Mara said in a statement this week. "Andy was a man's man in every respect."
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac