Robustelli Spurs Flood of Memories

Len Pasquarelli recalls watching Giants defensive end Andy Robustelli during his playing days, and meeting a gentleman outside Forbes Field as a youngster.

Nearly 52 years later, the program is essentially as tattered and threadbare as the memory of the game. But in the corner, right under the date of the Oct. 25, 1959, contest between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Giants at Forbes Field is Andy Robustelli's faded autograph, scribbled hurriedly and almost illegibly as he hustled to an idling bus waiting on Bouquet Street, an hour or so after his team's 21-16 victory.

Full disclosure: I had to research the final score, although I do somewhat recall through the fog and inherent mental cobwebs of a half-century the two touchdowns that Frank Gifford scored for the Giants that day. And that personal favorite Buddy Dial, the rookie flanker the Steelers traded five years later, evoking outrage from this now-callous hack, had a huge game for the locals.

In the matter of fuller disclosure, I didn't have to research the location of the yellowed program, since it still sits on my bookcase, in a position of prominence next to the framed picture of Steelers founder Art Rooney (smoking a stogie, of course), flanked by then-youngish sons Dan and Art Jr., and three Super Bowl trophies, and with the cherished autographs of all three men at the bottom.

When the news came Tuesday that Robustelli had died at age 85, the passing of the Hall of Fame defensive end elicited a flood of memories. Rarely does this ink-stained journalist allow the luxury of wandering down Memory Lane or of veering into personal causes. For the most part, no solicitations here for favorite charities, or prayers for ailing relatives, or commentaries on world events. But a couple years ago, I cobbled together appreciations upon the deaths of close friends Foge Fazio and Frank Gansz. And while I didn't know Robustelli nearly as well as those two, some remembrance seems in order in the wake of his passing.

Andy Robustelli chases Paul Hornung in the 1961 championship game.

On Dec. 28, 1958, I sat mesmerized in front of my folks' flickering, black-and-white television set and watched that season's NFL championship game. No doubt, I had seen earlier games on the tube, but the famous overtime contest between the Colts and Giants that launched the professional game into the preeminence it enjoys today, remains the first conscious memory of becoming a football fan.

And while I adopted Johnny Unitas as my favorite — why not, given that he had played for a semi-pro team in Bloomfield, the Pittsburgh neighborhood where I was raised, following his untimely release by the Steelers — I was drawn to defensive ends Gino Marchetti of Baltimore and to Robustelli.

Almost certainly, the attraction had something to do with the fact that both men had vowels at the end of their surnames. No offense intended, but for a kid who grew up counting the days until the every-Friday pizza and pasta fazioli dinners (both items homemade, of course) at my grandmother's, the men were bigger than life for many Italian-Americans.

Ironically, Robustelli, part of a Giants defensive front that included standouts such as Jim Katcavage, Rosey Grier and Dick Modzelewski — with the legendary Sam Huff at middle linebacker — was only 230 pounds. But there was something about his melodic handle — maybe it was the "Robust" part of it -- and the manner in which he played, and the way he carried himself, that was magnetic.

And so less than a year after the '58 title game, as a 9-year-old bedazzled as much by name as by game, I stood outside the visitor's locker room at Forbes Field and waited, program in hand, for Giants players to depart, and to perhaps stop for a second or two to scribble their names.

As part of the several jobs he worked to put five kids through Catholic schools, my father was a ticket-taker at Forbes Field, and so he had access to many nooks of the park where the public wasn't permitted. Three-and-a-half months earlier, I had stood outside the same locker room after the '59 All-Star Game, hoping that some players might sign my baseball. Like the football program referenced earlier, that baseball is faded, but one can make out the faint signatures of Stan Musial, Al Kaline, Mickey Mantle and Harmon Killebrew.

On that late October day in '59, I feared Robustelli would dismiss this shy but badgering kid the same way Ted Williams had following the all-star game. But with grace and patience, Robustelli, a bandaged cut over his nose, took the time to sign. So, again, forgiveness, please, I couldn't help but recall that, given Tuesday's events.

There have been a lot of characterizations of Robustelli since his death. But the one that probably sticks out the most to this one-time snot-nosed kid, at least personally, is "gentleman." He certainly was 52 years ago. And, from what those closest to him suggest, he remained so the rest of his life.

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