NFL players seek individual success and team success.
It takes a special player to accomplish both.
One such special player was defensive tackle Dick Modzelewski.
Over a 14-year NFL career from 1953 to 1966, Modzelewski achieved individual success, earning All-Pro, All-Conference, and Pro Bowl honors.
In addition, Modzelewski achieved team success, playing in eight NFL championship games for the New York Giants and Cleveland Browns and winning two NFL championships, including with the Browns in 1964.
— Ken Crippen (@KenCrippen) February 16, 2019
We take a look at the life of Dick Modzelewski – before, during, and after his NFL playing career.
The Early Years Through High School
Richard Blair Modzelewski was born on February 16, 1931 in West Natrona, Pennsylvania.
West Natrona is located in western Pennsylvania, approximately 25 miles from Pittsburgh.
Modzelewski grew up in a neighborhood known as “Ducktown” because many of its residents (immigrants from Poland and other Eastern European countries) raised ducks.
His father, Joseph, was a coal miner, and his mother, Martha, was a homemaker.
Modzelewski had five brothers and two sisters.
He followed his brother, Ed, to Har-Brack High School in Natrona Heights, Pennsylvania.
As a 175-pound lineman, Modzelewski earned the nickname, “Little Mo”, to distinguish him from Ed, who was two years older and was nicknamed, “Big Mo”.
“Big Mo” was then 20 pounds heavier than “Little Mo”.
While Modzelewski was at Har-Brack High School, the school posted a 23-6-1 record and played for the Class AA championship in the Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League in 1947.
In 1948, Modzelewski was named to the Pennsylvania All-State team as a lineman.
After high school, Modzelewski again followed Ed, now in selecting a college.
Modzelewski decided to join Ed and attend the University of Maryland in College Park, Maryland.
Modzelewski lettered in football at Maryland for three seasons from 1950 to 1952.
As a sophomore in 1950, Modzelewski, a defensive lineman, had grown to weigh 235 pounds, outweighing Ed, a running back, by 30 pounds.
However, their respective “Little Mo” and “Big Mo” nicknames remained.
“In high school at West Natrona, Pennsylvania, my older brother Ed was bigger. But after I followed him to the University of Maryland, I grew larger. Nevertheless, our nicknames stuck.”
In 1950, the Terrapins had a 7-2-1 record, including a 34-7 victory over Michigan State (then ranked second in the nation by the Associated Press) on October 7, 1950.
Modzelewski was part of a Maryland defense in 1950 that held five opponents to single digits, including a 41-0 shutout of West Virginia on November 18, 1950.
Before his junior season, Modzelewski was described in the 1951 Maryland football media guide as follows:
“Won every kind of award at Har-Brack High School. Stepped into Navy game last year and won first team berth on brilliant game as a soph. Had outstanding day against Michigan State. Fast and rugged. Tough to get around. Coaches say he is best defensive tackle in many a moon. Watch this boy. He’s sure to put on a spectacular show every Saturday, making a strong bid for future All-America honors.”
These comments in the 1951 Maryland football media guide proved prescient, as Modzelewski was named first team All-American by the Chicago Tribune and second-team All-American by the Associated Press in 1951.
Maryland compiled an unbeaten 10-0 record in 1951, including a 28-13 win over Tennessee (then ranked first in the nation by the Associated Press) in the Sugar Bowl on January 1, 1952.
The Terrapins won the Southern Conference title and were ranked third in the nation in the final Associated Press poll.
Modzelewski helped Maryland’s defense hold seven opponents to single digits in 1951, including shutouts of 27-0 over LSU on October 27, 1951, 35-0 over Missouri on November 3, 1951, and 53-0 over North Carolina State on November 17, 1951.
In 1952, Modzelewski’s senior season was even better than his junior season.
Modzelewski was named first team All-American in 1952 by each of the All-America Board, the American Football Coaches Association, the Associated Press, the International News Service, the Newspaper Enterprise Association, the Sporting News, the United Press, and the Walter Camp Football Foundation.
Even more impressively, in 1952, Modzelewski won the Outland Trophy as the best college football interior lineman in the nation.
In 1952, the Terrapins posted a 7-2 record and were ranked 13th in the nation in the final Associated Press poll.
With Modzelewski on the defensive line, in 1952, Maryland held six opponents to single digits, including a 28-0 shutout of Clemson on October 4, 1952 and a 37-0 shutout of Georgia on October 11, 1952.
After his successful years at Maryland, Modzelewski headed to the NFL.
The Pro Football Years
Modzelewski was drafted by the Washington Redskins in the second round of the 1953 NFL draft.
He was the 16th overall pick.
Playing at a height of six feet and a weight of 250 pounds, Modzelewski immediately became a full-time starter for Washington, starting all 12 regular season games at left defensive tackle in 1953.
Modzelewski helped Washington improve from a 4-8 record in 1952, when they allowed 287 points, to a 6-5-1 record (third in the NFL East division) in 1953, when they allowed only 215 points (ranked tied for third in the NFL).
Washington led the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed (1,752) in 1953.
In 1954, Modzelewski played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games at left defensive tackle.
Modzelewski scored a safety, when he tackled Chicago Cardinals running back Johnny Olszewski in the end zone, in a 38-16 Washington loss to the Cardinals on November 21, 1954.
Washington finished in fifth place in the NFL East division in 1954, with a 3-9 record.
In part because he had disagreements with Washington head coach Joe Kuharich, Modzelewski was traded by Washington to the Pittsburgh Steelers in March, 1955.
Modzelewski started all 12 regular season games at left defensive tackle for Pittsburgh in 1955.
Pittsburgh, with a 4-8 record, finished in sixth place in the NFL East division in 1955.
Modzelewski’s play helped the Steelers lead the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed (1,295) in 1955.
After only one season with Pittsburgh, Modzelewski was on the move again, being traded by Pittsburgh to the Detroit Lions in April, 1956.
Modzelewski never played in any games for Detroit because only a few days after the Lions acquired him, they traded him to the New York Giants.
The move to the Giants marked an important point in Modzelewski’s NFL career.
With the Giants, Modzelewski, for the first time, played both for one team for a long period of team (eight seasons) and for a successful team (six NFL championship games in eight seasons).
In 1956, at left defensive tackle, Modzelewski played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games for the Giants.
He recovered one fumble in 1956.
The Giants won the NFL East Division title, with an 8-3-1 record, in 1956.
Modzelewski contributed to New York leading the NFL in all of fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (3,081), sacks (32), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,443), and lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.48), in 1956.
In the 1956 NFL championship game, on December 30, 1956, with Modzelewski starting the game, the Giants defeated the Chicago Bears 47-7, giving Modzelewski his first NFL championship.
Modzelewski, in 1957, started all 12 regular season games at left defensive tackle.
Writing for The New York Times in October, 1957, famous author Gay Talese described Modzelewski as follows:
“260 pounds of tough tenderloin with shoulders so broad that he often has to pass through doors sideways.”
In 1957, Modzelewski again recovered one fumble.
He was named second-team All-Pro by the Newspaper Enterprise Association in 1957.
New York had a 7-5 record in 1957, finishing in second place in the NFL East division.
Modzelewski’s play contributed to the Giants allowing only 211 points (ranked tied for third in the NFL).
Modzelewski again started all 12 regular season games at left defensive tackle in 1958.
New York, with a 9-3 record, finished in a tie for first place with the Cleveland Browns in the NFL East division in 1958.
Modzelewski’s play helped the Giants lead the NFL in both fewest points allowed (183) and lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.61) in 1958.
On December 21, 1958, New York met Cleveland in a playoff “tiebreaker” game.
Modzelewski started the game, and the Giants shut out Cleveland 10-0.
While the Giants were able to shut out the Browns, Modzelewski had tremendous respect for future Pro Football Hall of Fame Browns running back Jim Brown.
Modzelewski later described his football injuries as “Jim Browns”.
“I tell people, ‘I had a total knee replacement. That’s because of Jim Brown . . . I have two bad shoulders. That’s Jim Brown. I had two back operations. That’s from Jim Brown.’ . . . To this day, they can tell me all they want about all these backs they have now – [LaDainian] Tomlinson or anyone else – nobody compares to him. We were watching some game films one time, and Jim Brown is running the ball, and all you see is Giants, eight or nine of them, on top of this one person [Brown], moving. All of us were on him, grabbing him by the ankles, by the knees, anything we could possibly do.”
After the victory over Cleveland, the Giants advanced to the 1958 NFL championship game against the Baltimore Colts on December 28, 1958.
Modzelewski started the game and had a sack, but New York lost to Baltimore 23-17 in overtime.
For the third consecutive year, in 1959, Modzelewski started all 12 regular season games at left defensive tackle.
Modzelewski recovered three fumbles in 1959.
The Giants won the NFL East Division title, with a 10-2 record, in 1959.
Modzelewski contributed to New York leading the NFL in all of fewest points allowed (170), fewest total passing and rushing yards allowed (2,843), fewest passing yards allowed (1,582), fewest rushing yards allowed (1,261), and lowest average yards per rushing attempt allowed (3.33), in 1959.
On December 27, 1959, the Giants again played the Baltimore Colts in the NFL championship game.
Modzelewski again started the game, but New York lost the 1959 NFL championship game to the Colts 31-16.
In 1960, Modzelewski played in all 12, and started 11, regular season games at left defensive tackle.
He had four-and-one-half sacks in 1960 (individual regular season sack statistics were not available before 1960).
The Giants finished in third place in the NFL East division in 1960, with a 6-4-2 record.
Modzelewski’s play helped New York lead the NFL in lowest average yards per rushing attempt (3.20) in 1960.
Modzelewski, in 1961, started all 14 regular season games at left defensive tackle.
On November 5, 1961, Modzelewski tackled Washington Redskins quarterback Norm Snead in the end zone for a safety, in a 53-0 Giants shutout of Washington.
In 1961, Modzelewski recovered one fumble and had four-and-one-half sacks.
He was named first team All-Pro by the New York Daily News in 1961.
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) August 21, 2017
New York won the NFL East Division title in 1961, with a 10-3-1 record.
With Modzelewski at left defensive tackle, the Giants led the NFL in fewest points allowed (220), defensive forced turnovers (54), and defensive interceptions (33), in 1961.
New York played the Green Bay Packers in the 1961 NFL championship game on December 31, 1961.
Modzelewski started the game, but the Giants lost to Green Bay 37-0.
In 1962, Modzelewski, at left defensive tackle, again started all 14 regular season games.
He had six sacks in 1962.
— Meredith Modzelewski (@meredithmo) January 31, 2014
In 1962, New York had a 12-2 record and again won the NFL East Division title.
The Giants advanced to play in the 1962 NFL championship game against the Green Bay Packers (for the second consecutive season).
Modzelewski started the game, but New York lost to Green Bay 16-7.
For the third consecutive season, in 1963, Modzelewski started all 14 regular season games at left defensive tackle.
Modzelewski recovered one fumble and had four sacks in 1963.
In 1963, he was named first team All-Conference by the Sporting News.
The Giants, in 1963, had an 11-3 record and, for the third consecutive season, won the NFL East Division title.
New York led the NFL in sacks (57) in 1963.
In the 1963 NFL championship game, the Giants played the Chicago Bears on December 29, 1963.
Modzelewski started the game, but New York lost to Chicago 14-10.
The Giants traded Modzelewski to the Cleveland Browns in exchange for tight end Bobby Crespino on March 3, 1964.
With Cleveland, as in high school and college, “Little Mo” again was following his brother, “Big Mo”; Ed Modzelewski had played for the Browns from 1955 to 1959.
On joining Cleveland, Modzelewski was happy to have Jim Brown as a teammate, and no longer as an opponent.
“It was better to play with [Brown] than against him.”
The Browns generally had expected Modzelewski to serve as a backup to starting defensive tackles Frank Parker and Jim Kanicki in 1964.
However, when Parker was injured early in the season, Modzelewski became the starter at left defensive tackle.
In 1964, Modzelewski played in all 14, and started 12, regular season games at left defensive tackle for Cleveland.
— John Skrtic (@SkrticX) September 13, 2020
Modzelewski’s play contributed to Cleveland’s defense holding three opponents below 300 total yards in 1964 – 239 total yards, in a 27-6 Browns win over the Dallas Cowboys on October 4, 1964 (Cleveland had two sacks and forced one turnover), 251 total yards (including only 86 “net” passing yards), in a 30-17 Browns victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers on November 1, 1964 (Cleveland had five sacks and forced two turnovers), and 285 total yards, in a 28-21 Browns loss to the Green Bay Packers on November 22, 1964 (Cleveland had one sack).
For the 1964 season, Modzelewski had two fumble recoveries (which he returned for five yards) and four sacks.
He was invited to his first Pro Bowl in 1964.
Cleveland won the NFL East Division title in 1964, with a 10-3-1 record.
With Modzelewski at left defensive tackle, the Browns ranked in the NFL in 1964 fifth in fewest points allowed (293), fourth in defensive forced turnovers (40), tied for second in defensive recovered fumbles (21), and tied for fifth in defensive interceptions (19).
The Browns advanced to play the Baltimore Colts in the 1964 NFL championship game on December 27, 1964.
Modzelewski started the game and made two key plays, recovering a fumble in the first quarter and deflecting a pass that caused an interception in the fourth quarter.
Cleveland shutout the Colts 27-0, holding Baltimore to 181 total yards, having two sacks, and forcing four turnovers.
The win gave Modzelewski his second NFL championship and the Browns their first NFL championship since 1955.
In reflecting on the 1964 season, Modzelewski believed that head coach Blanton Collier was key to Cleveland’s success.
“He was like a grandfather. He didn’t yell that much, but you wanted to play for him real bad, you really did.”
In 1965, Modzelewski played in all 14, and started 13, regular season games at left defensive tackle.
In 1965, Modzelewski recovered one fumble and had seven-and-one-half sacks.
With an 11-3 record, the Browns again won the NFL East Division title in 1965 (for Modzelewski’s fifth consecutive NFL East Division championship).
Modzelewski contributed to Cleveland ranking in the NFL in 1965 fifth in defensive interceptions (24).
On January 2, 1966, the Browns played the Green Bay Packers in the 1965 NFL championship game.
Modzelewski started the game, but Cleveland lost to the Packers 23-12.
Modzelewski saw significantly less playing time as a starter in 1966.
While he again played in all 14 regular season games, he only started one game.
Modzelewski recovered two fumbles, which he returned for 13 yards, and had two sacks in 1966.
Cleveland had a 9-5 record, finishing tied for second in the NFL East division in 1966.
With Modzelewski, Cleveland ranked in the NFL in 1966 fifth in fewest points allowed (259), first in defensive forced turnovers (49), fourth in defensive recovered fumbles (19), and first in defensive interceptions (30).
1966 was Modzelewski’s final season as an NFL player.
The Years After the NFL
Modzelewski was married to Dorothy.
He had four children.
After his retirement from the NFL as a player, Modzeleweski remained involved in the NFL.
In 1967, he was a scout for the Browns.
He then worked for 10 years as a coach for the Browns.
First, from 1968 through 1975, Modzelewski served as a defensive line coach for Cleveland.
Second, in 1976 and 1977, Modzelewski was the defensive coordinator for Cleveland.
During a head coaching change, Modzelewski was interim head coach of the Browns for one game – a 20-19 Cleveland loss to the Seattle Seahawks on December 18, 1977.
Over Modzelewski’s 10 seasons coaching for the Browns, Cleveland had a losing record in only three seasons (1974, 1975, and 1977), made the playoffs in four seasons (1968, 1969, 1971, and 1972), and won its division in three seasons (the NFL Century division in 1968 and 1969, and the AFC Central division in 1971).
During these years, the Browns also won two playoff games, defeating the Dallas Cowboys twice, 31-20 on December 21, 1968 and 38-14 on December 28, 1969.
After his decade of service as a coach for the Browns, Modzelewski also worked as defensive coordinator for the New York Giants in 1978, defensive line coach for the Cincinnati Bengals from 1979 through 1983, defensive line coach for the Green Bay Packers in 1984 and 1985, defensive coordinator for Green Bay in 1986 and 1987, and defensive line coach for the Detroit Lions in 1988 and 1989.
Modzelewski died on October 19, 2018 in Eastlake, Ohio.
He was 87.
“260 POUNDS OF TOUGH TENDERLOIN WITH SHOULDERS SO BROAD THAT HE OFTEN HAS TO PASS THROUGH DOORS SIDEWAYS.”
— Gay Talese, novelist, describing Dick Modzelewski
My uncle passed away. A great football player and even better man. pic.twitter.com/5YdQw3b2Fa
— Michael Modzelewski (@mikemodzelewski) October 21, 2018
In 1993, Modzelewski was inducted in the College Football Hall of Fame.
He was also inducted in the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame in 1986.
While it is difficult to obtain statistical information on defensive lineman (particularly when Modzelewski played), one number stands out regarding Modzelewski – 189.
Over his 14-year career with Washington, Pittsburgh, New York, and Cleveland, Modzelewski’s teams played 180 regular season games and nine playoff games.
Modzelewski never missed one of them, playing in 189 consecutive regular season and playoff games.
Given the frequent injuries that can affect a defensive lineman, Modzelewski’s streak of 189 consecutive games is a tremendous accomplishment.
In his three seasons with Cleveland from 1964 to 1966, Modzelewski recovered five fumbles (which he returned for 18 yards) and had 13-1/2 sacks.
More importantly, Browns fans should remember Modzelewski for helping Cleveland win its last NFL championship in 1964 (also a Pro Bowl year for Modzelewski).
It is only fitting that a player who advanced to eight NFL championship games should be recognized for helping a franchise have a memorably successful season.
Dick “Little Mo” Modzelewski was a winner, who helped the Cleveland Browns be winners.