Another special edition of 5,478 Days.
When my grandfather stopped by the Stamford High-Norwalk High football game in October or November 1958, his main purpose was to take pictures of my father, then a skinny sophomore playing in the Stamford High marching band.
But when he saw one of pro football’s greatest defensive ends milling among the crowd, my grandpa couldn’t resist asking to take his picture.
And, just like any self-respecting local hero would do, Andy Robustelli obliged.
At the time my grandfather snapped this picture, the unprepossessing fellow in the gray cloth coat was at or near the peak of a remarkable, late-blooming football career.
Robustelli, a Stamford native, turned 16 the day before Pearl Harbor and enlisted in the U.S. Navy two years later. After his tour of duty, he came back to Connecticut and went to college in Bridgeport. He got drafted by an NFL team, but not by much — 19th round to the Rams, in 1951 — and was 25 by the time he went to his first pro training camp.
He defied the experts by not only staying with the Rams, but starring with them. And when he moved to the semi-hometown New York football Giants in 1956, he cemented his legend as a dangerous, durable pass rusher who used speed and intelligence to make up for what he lacked in pure size and strength. (The Football Hall of Fame lists Robustelli at 6’1″, 230.)
Only two months or so after this photo was taken, Robustelli would take part in the 1958 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts — a game celebrated in NFL legend as “the greatest game ever played.” Robustelli’s Giants lost in overtime to the Colts, but the game played a key role in popularizing the NFL and televised pro football to audiences nationwide.
Robustelli retired after the 1964 season, and was elected to the Football Hall of Fame seven years later.
In the only blot on his professional resume, he served as the Giants’ general manager during their fallow years of the Seventies, proving that he was less adept at drafting and managing talent than he was at being it. (This is a common shortcoming among star athletes in all professional sports, and is scarcely unique to Robustelli.)
Back home in Stamford, where Robustelli became a successful businessman, the poor fortunes of the mid-Seventies Giants put scarcely a dent in his reputation.
By all accounts, he embodied the old-school example of the local boy made good — humble, grounded, steady and clean-living. People spoke well of him, and meant it.
Decades after my grandfather took this picture, Robustelli was still attending Stamford High sporting events to cheer on his grandchildren, mixing unpretentiously with the crowd as he did in 1958.
He was not the sort to seek out a neighbor with a camera, but not the sort to shrug them off if they asked for a picture or two, either. My other grandpa, a lifelong Giants fan, also lived in Stamford, and I’m fairly sure that among his effects is a picture of him with Andy Robustelli at one or another civic event. On the football field, Robustelli was an immortal; off the field, he was a quiet, distinguished, but accessible part of his community.
Andy Robustelli died Tuesday, May 31, in the city he called home all his life. He was 85.