NEW YORK — Dick Modzelewski, the New York Giants’ tackle who played on the line that transformed defensive players into glamorous pro football figures during the team’s glory years of the late 1950s and early ’60s, died Friday at his home in Eastlake, Ohio. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Laurie Hardesty.
Mr. Modzelewski, winner of the 1952 Outland Trophy as college football’s best interior lineman, playing for the University of Maryland, was obtained by the Giants in a trade before the 1956 season. Soon, chants of “Dee-fense” rang out at Yankee Stadium as Mr. Modzelewski at left tackle, Jim Katcavage at left end, Andy Robustelli at right end — all in their first season as Giants — and Rosey Grier at right tackle formed the first NFL defensive line to be celebrated as a unit.
The Giants routed the Chicago Bears, 47-7, to win the 1956 NFL championship and captured five more Eastern Conference titles in the next seven years with that defensive line virtually intact.
Mr. Modzelewski was described by Gay Talese in The New York Times in October 1957 as “260 pounds of tough tenderloin with shoulders so broad that he often has to pass through doors sideways.”
When he retired after 14 seasons in the NFL, eight as a Giant, he had played in a league-record 180 consecutive games. Impressive as that feat was, if a player in that era was still standing, he wasn’t likely to be removed after being shaken up.
“If you get the wind knocked out of you,” Mr. Modzelewski said in 1957, “the trainer comes out and says to you, ‘What time is it? Where are you? Who are we playing?’ If you say, ‘We’re playing Hawaii,’ the trainer leads you off the field.”
Dick Modzelewski (pronounced moe-juh-LESS-kee) was known as Little Mo, a nickname he got when he was a 175-pound lineman on his western Pennsylvania high school team with his older brother Ed, who became Big Mo because he outweighed Dick by 20 pounds. But in the pros, Ed, a fullback who played one season with the Pittsburgh Steelers and five with the Cleveland Browns, was outweighed by Dick, 260 to 215.
Dick was a junior on Maryland’s unbeaten team that upset previously undefeated Tennessee, 28-13, in the 1952 Sugar Bowl. Ed, Maryland’s All-American fullback, was voted the game’s most valuable player.
When Tom Landry, the Giants’ former defensive back, became the team’s full-time defensive coordinator under coach Jim Lee Howell in 1956, he oversaw an innovative alignment with four down linemen, three linebackers, and the four defensive backs in place of the customary 5-2-4 system. The Giants’ line was backed by Sam Huff, the mobile and famously tough middle linebacker, who took the place of a burly middle guard used in the previously popular alignment, and who usually stopped the leading running backs of the time — though he was challenged especially by Cleveland’s Jim Brown.
Frank Gifford, the Giants’ Hall of Fame halfback, paid tribute to the defensive line in “The Whole Ten Yards” a memoir written with Harry Waters Jr., describing how “the Browns had an awesome offensive line but those four guys were able to neutralize it enough to allow Sam to become famous as The Man Who Stopped Jim Brown.”
In a 2015 interview, Dick Modzelewski recalled a particular Giants-Browns game when the two lines collided in the shadow of the Giants’ end zone and his brother Ed tried to bust through for a touchdown.
“In Cleveland Stadium, they had the ball on the 1- or 2-yard line and I tackled him for a loss,” he said. “He threw the football and hit me in the back of the helmet. After the game, we hugged each other.”
Dick Modzelewski became a Giant after two seasons with the Washington Redskins and another with the Steelers. After he played on the Giants team that defeated the Bears for the ’56 NFL title, his Giants lost to the Baltimore Colts in the storied 1958 sudden-death overtime title game and the ’59 championship game. They were defeated three more times in title games of the early 1960s, twice by the Green Bay Packers and then by the Chicago Bears under Howell’s successor, Allie Sherman.
Mr. Modzelewski was traded to the Browns and Huff was dealt to the Redskins after the 1963 season. The Giants began to decline after that, but Mr. Modzelewski played on a 1964 NFL championship team with Cleveland and was selected for the Pro Bowl that season.
Richard Blair Modzelewski was born on Feb. 16, 1931, in West Natrona, Pa.
He was one of three football-playing brothers, with Ed, his Maryland teammate who played on the Browns’ 1955 NFL championship team, and Gene, who played tackle at New Mexico State. After his playing days, Dick was a defensive coach with the Browns, Giants, Packers, Cincinnati Bengals, and Detroit Lions. He was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993.
In addition to his daughter Laurie, Mr. Modzelewski leaves his wife, Dorothy Jane (Welsh) Modzelewski; his daughter Amie Rodgers; his sons, Mark and Terry; his sisters, Betty Logan and Florence Nowicki; eight grandchildren; and six great-grandchildren.
He owned a Cleveland restaurant and a Midwestern restaurant chain with Ed.
“Ed is my brother and I love him,” Dick told The Times in 1957. But as for the Giants-Browns rivalry of the time, he added, “On the field he wears a white shirt and I wear a blue shirt and we don’t know each other.”