The Brothers Modzelewski
(Special Tuesday edition sent onboard the AMERICAN QUEEN north of Natchez, MS)
Picture, if you will, four ethnically Polish brothers, growing up, in middle America, mid-Twentieth Century; three of the four played football. One brother, Dick, was a mainstay tackle for my team, the New York Giants.
In 1957, Jim Brown, Cleveland’s sensational rookie fullback led the team in rushing with 942 yards. Lost in Jim Brown’s wake and all but forgotten that season was former starter, Ed Modzelewski (pronounced moe-juh-LESS-kee). Modzelewski, known as “Big Mo” had rushed for 619 yards just two years earlier but after being relegated to the role of substitute Big Mo’s playing time was reduced to just 21 yards in ten carries. Big Mo played little the next two seasons and retired following the 1959 season rather than play for a new expansion team, the Dallas Cowboys.
Big Mo was the sixth player picked in the 1952 NFL draft after finishing his college career at the University of Maryland where he played from 1949 to 1951. The Terrapins were anointed National Champions in 1951 after an undefeated season that included upsetting the previously unbeaten Tennessee Volunteers, 28-13 in the Sugar Bowl. Big Mo was named the outstanding player of that game after running for 153 yards. His coach, Jim Tatum, proclaimed after the game, “He’s the best fullback in the country.”
Years later, a reporter caught up with Big Mo at his home in West Sedona, Arizona. “Relics of those glory years are tucked away out of sight.” Ed noted, “Most of (my stuff) is in the garage. My Sugar Bowl trophy got broken years ago by our four kids. All I have is the bottom part.”
Ed ran a successful food franchise business after he retired. He died on February 28, 2015 at 86.
Brother Dick, two years younger was deemed “Little Mo”. Ed and Dick played together for two seasons at Maryland including the 1951 championship. In his senior year, Little Mo received the Outland Trophy as the best lineman in the country. Drafted by the Redskins, he also played for the Steelers before being traded to the New York Giants in 1956 where he became part of the greatest defensive team of that era. Playing tackle, Little Mo joined Andy Robustelli, Roosevelt Grier and Jim Kacavage. This group of men together with their middle linebacker, Sam Huff, stole the publicity spotlight becoming the first defensive football stars in the NFL. It didn’t hurt that television enhanced their exposure, or that they played in the media capital of the country or that the Giants won the NFL Championship Game in 1956 demolishing the Chicago Bears, 47 to 7.
Although this was their only championship victory, as a unit they played in four more title games. Little Mo was the least flamboyant of the group which suited his team ethic. He was the sheriff of the line of scrimmage, the lineman who rarely chased after the ball carrier or who rushed the passer. Instead he patrolled the line of scrimmage and eliminated the opponent’s blockers so his mates could make the big play.
Baby brother, Eugene played at New Mexico State from 1961 to 1965 with the nickname, “No Mo.” Drafted in 1966 by both the Browns and the army, Gene served in Viet Nam and never returned to the game. He was 60 when he died in 2004.
Football didn’t call oldest brother Joe who was the chef at the family restaurant in Cleveland.
After a successful 1963 season, the Giants owner, Wellington Mara and head coach, Allie Sherman grew concerned that too many stars were aging. They instituted a disastrous youth movement that promptly caused the team to collapse. The Giants wouldn’t return to the playoffs until 1981.
First to go; Little Mo traded to the Browns in 1964 for Bobby Crespino, a tight end. The Browns considered Crespino to be a bust. Their No.1 draft choice in 1961, he only caught a total of six passes in three seasons.
The Giants lied to their fans and proclaimed that Little Mo wanted to finish his career in his home town. Dick saw it for what it was; a “dump job.”
In his words: “A few weeks after the trade, I went to see (Cleveland owner, Art) Modell about my contract. I was so mad about the trade, I could hardly talk. I told him, ‘Give me a blank contract.’ I signed it and shoved it back at him. ‘Write in whatever amount you want.’ Then I steamed out the door. Modell always said he paid me more than he intended because I did that. But frankly, I was so mad, I didn’t care. I think he gave me $17,500 which was more than I made in New York.”
Little Mo went on to be a starter in 1964 when teammate, Jim Parker fell to injuries. The Browns won the NFL Title Game that year and Dick picked up his second championship ring. The Giants finished last in their division with a 2-10-2 record.
Little Mo remained in pro football as a player and a coach until 1990. Dick is 84.
As Modzelewski grew older, his anger grew less defined; Little Mo forgave the Giants and made them his chosen team of record. He signed a one-day contract and officially retired from the NFL as Number 77, defensive tackle, New York Football Giants.