Big Mo moves a little slow these days. But then, he's almost 85.
"I've got a hip problem, so I'm walking with a cane," Ed Modzelewski said. "That's OK, because I'm still above ground."
Once, the ground shook when Modzelewski thundered by, football in hand. The star fullback on Maryland's undefeated 1951 team, Big Mo led the No. 3 Terps to an upset of top-ranked Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl, where he was named the game's outstanding player. Four years later, Modzelewski helped the Cleveland Browns win their second straight NFL championship over the Los Angeles Rams.
Relics of those glory years are tucked away, out of sight.
"Walk through this house and you wouldn't even know I played the game," Modzelewski said by phone from his home in West Sedona, Ariz. "Most of [the mementos] I have are in the garage. My Sugar Bowl trophy got broken years ago by our four kids; all I have is the bottom part."
Not that it matters to Big Mo.
"Like my dad always said, 'Don't live on your laurels. All of those scrapbooks wouldn't buy a cup of coffee today,'" he said.
But what a story the scrapbooks tell.
The son of a Polish-born coal miner, Modzelewski entered Maryland in 1948 from western Pennsylvania and quickly settled in. As a sophomore, he helped the Terps to a 9-1 mark and a victory over Missouri in the Gator Bowl, where he scored the winning touchdown. As a junior, he scored twice in a 34-7 upset of No. 2 Michigan State and earned honorable mention All-America.
In 1951, Modzelewski excelled on the only modern-era Maryland team to go unbeaten (9-0). A punishing 215-pound runner with an explosive start, he outrushed most of the Terps' opponents and gained 153 yards in the 28-13 Sugar Bowl victory that broke Tennessee's 20-game win streak.
"He's the best fullback in the country," Maryland coach Jim Tatum gushed afterward.
Both Modzelewski and his brother Dick "Little Mo" Modzelewski, a defensive tackle who'd followed him to Maryland, made second-team All-American, and Pittsburgh chose Big Mo No. 1 (sixth overall) in the NFL draft.
Asked then if he'd turn pro — no sure thing in those days — Modzelewski replied, "The money sure would help. The only thing I want is to get Dad out of the mines. He's been digging coal for 40 years."
He played one year with the hapless Steelers, then served in the Air Force for two. Discharged in 1955, Modzelewski joined the Browns, whose coach, the disciplined Paul Brown, had dealt for him.
"That was the highlight of my life," Modzelewski said. "After being with the Steelers, a rag-tag bunch, going to Cleveland was like going to the penthouse. Paul was organized to a T, right down to how he wanted your hands pointed downward in the huddle."
The Browns went 9-2-1 and repeated as NFL champs. Modzelewski rumbled for 619 yards and scored eight TDs. In a 26-20 victory over the Chicago Cardinals, he played with a badly bruised shoulder but carried 27 times for 116 yards, tying the team record for most rushing attempts in one game.
That was the best of his five years in Cleveland. In 1957, Modzelewski lost his job to a rookie from Syracuse who was Hall of Fame-bound.
"I thought I was pretty good until Jim Brown came along," he said. "I remember running sprints on the first day of practice. I'd always had a quick start but when the whistle blew, I looked to the side and Jim was three steps ahead of me already."
Two years later, Modzelewski left the game, teamed with his brother and opened a fast-food chain in the Midwest. Now retired for 40 years, he lives with his second wife, Joanne, in Arizona, a two-hour drive to the Grand Canyon.
"I'm a lucky guy," he said. "Football gave Dick and I a chance to get out of the mines. I'll never forget the time our dad, who spoke broken English, came to Maryland to see us play North Carolina. At halftime, Tatum got on the loudspeaker and asked Dad to come sit on the players' bench, as a kind of good-luck charm."
Big Mo didn't score, but he made an extraordinary tackle after a Carolina interception, catching the Tar Heels' safety from behind after a 56-yard chase.
It was his only collegiate tackle. The Terps won, 14-7 — their first win against Carolina in 25 years. On the Maryland bench, a rugged old coal miner beamed.
"That was one magic moment," Modzelewski said.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun