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Robustellis Giants gave birth to a cheer
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Forsyth County News

"DEE-fense!" Stomp, stomp.

"DEE-fense!" Stomp, stomp.

"DEE-fense!" Stomp, stomp.

We take the ol’ "DEE-fense!" cheer for granted today. It’s become as much a part of sporting events as the national anthem or the high five. And it’s been around for about as long as anyone can remember.

But not always. That came to mind last week with news of the passing of Andy Robustelli at age 85. For it was Robustelli, the Hall-of-Fame defensive end for the New York Giants from 1956-1964, who deserves credit for inspiring that cheer.

In his book "The Whole Ten Yards," teammate Frank Gifford wrote, "Never in the history of football had fans gone to a stadium to root for a ‘DEE-fense!’" until Robustelli arrived in New York.

He stood only 6-foot-1 and weighed only 230 pounds, and was so highly coveted coming out of tiny Arnold College in Milford, Connecticut (now part of the University of Bridgeport) that the Rams were able to draft him in 1951 in the 19th round.

Not only did the Rams have two Hall-of-Fame quarterbacks in Norm Van Brocklin and Bob Waterfield; they also had two Hall-of-Fame receivers in Elroy "Crazylegs" Hirsch and Tom Fears.

Brilliantly, Robustelli focused on defense, where he quickly became a smart, hard-hitting, savvy defender for the Rams 1951 NFL champions. He would eventually make first team All-Pro six times, recover 22 fumbles, and play in eight NFL championship games.

In 1962, he won the Maxwell Club’s Bert Bell Award as the NFL’s most outstanding player, a landmark for a defensive lineman.

Perhaps most amazing, in 14 seasons, he only missed one game.

In his own book "Once a Giant, Always" Robustelli told the story of how he became a Giant. He still lived in his hometown of Stamford, Conn. In 1956, Andra, the fourth of his nine children, had just been born. Robustelli phoned Sid Gillman, the Rams coach, to tell Gillman that he’d be a few days late reporting to training camp.

"I’ve got a team to worry about, not your family," Gillman told him.

"Well, I’ve got some kids to worry about," Robustelli replied, "and I’ve got to do what’s right for me. I’ll be out there as soon as my home situation is settled."

Robustelli’s next call came from Wellington Mara, the Giants co-owner. "I’ve been talking to the Rams about you, and they’re willing to trade you. I know you’re 30 years old, but do you think you could play two or three more years?"

Robustelli replied, "Go ahead and make the deal!"

For the next nine years, Robustelli manned the right defensive end spot in his No. 81 jersey every Sunday for the Giants. But more than that, he was their captain, their inspiration, and for his final four seasons, their assistant coach as well. No wonder he was known around the locker room as "Pope."

"He put more book time into his work than the others," Tom Landry, his defensive coordinator in the ‘50s, once told the Hartford Courant. "He thought all the time. Not just on the field."

Wrote Robustelli, "I was a leader. I was a fighter. And as far as my teammates were concerned, I helped solidify a good group of people, on and off the field."

That good group of people came to earn the utmost respect of Giant fans. The great defensive line of Robustelli, Roosevelt Grier, Dick Modzelewski and Jim Katcavage — now, there’s a set of great football names — played together from 1956 through 1962.

They opened up gaps for middle linebacker Sam Huff to become the first star in Landry’s revolutionary 4-3 defense. Huff would make the cover of Time magazine and be the subject of a television documentary, "The Violent World of Sam Huff."

If anyone managed to get past the front seven, they faced a fierce secondary manned by the likes of Emlen Tunnell, Dick Nolan, Jim Patton, Dick Lynch and Erich Barnes.

Make no mistake. It was the proud Giant defense that led the team to six NFL championship games from 1956 to 1963. "If they recovered a fumble," Gifford recalled for the New York Times last week, "Sam might walk by me as I started onto the field and say, ‘See if you can hold ‘em for a while!’"

The fans knew, too. They were the ones screaming "DEE-fense! DEE-fense!"

Robustelli wrote, "There’s no real way to describe how it feels to hear 62,000 people cheering for you, except to say that is the closest I have ever felt to being absolutely unbeatable."