The Cleveland Browns won the NFL Championship Game in 1964 by defeating the Baltimore Colts 27-0. After winning eight combined titles between the All-America Football Conference and the NFL, this 1964 squad has since become the last championship for the franchise.
Amongst the defensive players on that squad was a tough and reliable veteran at the DT position by the name of Dick Modzelewski. On Friday, Richard Blair Modzelewski passed away at his home in Eastlake, Ohio at the age of 87. They called him “Little Mo” because of his older brother Ed who also played with the Browns. He grew up in Pennsylvania the son of Polish immigrants where his father was a coal miner.
Modzelewski was drafted in the second-round of the 1953 NFL draft by the Washington Redskins. Little Mo had instant conflicts with head coach Joe Kuharich and after two seasons, Modzelewski signed with Calgary of the Canadian Football League. The Redskins filed an injunction to stop him from leaving his contract and Calgary rescinded their offer.
Instead of playing him, the Redskins traded his rights to the Pittsburgh Steelers. In those days, the Steelers were always the worst and most dysfunctional club in the NFL, so when a player was traded there it was like going to Siberia. The following year, the Steelers traded Little Mo to the Lions who then traded him to the Giants three days later.
Little Mo was an instant starter and a key component to the Giants. Despite other defensive players that received quite a bit of attention such as LB Sam Huff and DE Andy Robustelli, he was the rock of the center of the defensive front. In 1956, the Giants captured the NFL title. During the eight years he played in New York, the Giants would play in six NFL Championship Games, with 1956 the only title won. He even opened up a local restaurant.
Beginning in 1962, Giants head coach Allie Sherman began to trade off the key defensive players for more offensive firepower as he believed anyone could be plugged in and play defense. LB Cliff Livingston was the first one traded to the Minnesota Vikings, followed by DT Rosey Grier to the Rams, and then Little Mo was traded to the Browns for WR Bobby Crespino. Other defensive players were also traded. The end result for New York eventually dismantled the club from going to the NFL title game three years in a row, to the beginning of horrid teams from 1964-1978. These seasons are what Giants’ fan call the “Wilderness Years.”
For Little Mo, the trade came at the right time with the right team.
The Browns had parted ways with head coach Paul Brown after the 1962 season. Longtime assistant Blanton Collier was then named the new head coach. The Browns were successful under Collier with mainly Brown’s players and his systems still in place. In 1963 Cleveland went 10-4-0 but did not qualify for the playoffs, one game behind the Giants.
The following year, the Browns captured the Eastern Conference with a 10-3-1 record and a trip to the 1964 NFL Championship Game against the 12-2-0 Baltimore Colts. After a scoreless first half dominated by defense, the Colts tried to gain yardage into a very hard wind in the third quarter at Cleveland Stadium. The offense for the Colts could not mount any kind of drive against the elements. The Browns kicked a Lou Groza FG and then QB Frank Ryan found WR Gary Collins for two TD passes. In the fourth stanza, another Groza FG and one more Collins TD catch from Ryan ended the game with a 27-0 domination by Cleveland in front of 79,544 hometown fans.
Defensive standouts for the game were LBs Bill Glass and Vince Costello, CB Bernie Parrish, and Modzelewski. After the season, Little Mo was named to the Pro Bowl. The Browns would return to the Championship Game in 1965 against the Green Bay Packers with the winner headed to the first Super Bowl, but lost 23-12.
Modzelewski retired after the 1966 season. He became the Browns’ defensive line coach and then defensive coordinator in 1976. In 1977, Cleveland fired head coach Forrest Gregg and named Little Mo as the interim head coach for the final game of the season. The following year new head coach Sam Rutigliano offered him the DL coaching position. Instead, he accepted the DC position with the Giants. After that, he had coaching positions with the Cincinnati Bengals, Packers and Detroit Lions before retiring in 1989.
Dick Modzelewski was inducted into the National Polish American Sports Hall of Fame in 1986 and then the College Football Hall of Fame in 1993 (University of Maryland). Little Mo was named to the 1952 College All-America Team and was the starter in eight NFL championship games, a record he now shares with New England Patriots QB Tom Brady.
Modzelewski’s funeral is October 26, 2018 in Mentor, Ohio. He is survived by his wife of 64 years, Dorothy Jane, and four children.
Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association.