Ed Modzelewski, the star fullback on Maryland's undefeated 1952 Sugar Bowl champions, died Saturday of congestive heart failure at his home in West Sedona, Ariz. "Big Mo," as he was known, was 86.
A powerful, punishing runner, Modzelewski led the Terps to nine straight wins in 1951 — their only perfect season in modern history — a No. 3 ranking and a New Year's Day showdown with No. 1 Tennessee in the Sugar Bowl. Maryland won, 28-13, as Big Mo rushed for 153 yards to earn the game's Outstanding Player award.
"Ed was a superstar, the linchpin of the team that kicked [Tennessee's] butt," said teammate Dick Bielski, 82, of Towson. "Given a choice of running around you or over you, he'd do the latter."
Jack Scarbath, Maryland's All-American quarterback, said Modzelewski "made my job easier, that game and every game. I can still see him running off tackle and making yardage just by knocking people down. They fell like tenpins."
A second-team All-America selection and a first-round NFL draft pick, Big Mo always shared the limelight, said Scarbath, 84, of Rising Sun: "Every time he ran the ball, he'd compliment the guys up front for blocking for him."
The son of a Polish-born coal miner, Modzelewski grew up in western Pennsylvania and chose Maryland from a host of college offers. As a sophomore in 1949, he helped the Terps go 9-1 and defeat Missouri, 20-7, in the Gator Bowl. Big Mo scored the winning touchdown. The next year, he scored twice in a 34-7 upset of No. 2 Michigan State.
As a senior, in a 40-21 win over Navy at Baltimore Stadium, he had two touchdowns and 127 of the Terps' 138 rushing yards to win Associated Press Back of the Week honors. Modzelewski ended the year with 825 yards on the ground, averaging 7.3 yards per rush.
But the Sugar Bowl was his signature game. Before an announced 82,500 in New Orleans, Big Mo rambled for nearly twice as many yards as Tennessee (81) as the Terps ended the Volunteers' 20-game winning streak.
"He's the best fullback in the country," Maryland coach Jim Tatum said afterward.
Modzelewski played six years in the pros, mostly with the Cleveland Browns where, in 1955, he totaled 732 yards and eight touchdowns for the NFL champions. After football, he started a restaurant chain in the Midwest with his brother Dick, who'd followed him to Maryland, starred at defensive tackle and played 14 years in the NFL.
"One thing about Ed, he hated to lose," Dick (Little Mo) Modzelewski said. "Once, in the pros, when I was with the New York Giants, he took a handoff on our 2-yard line and I stopped him for a yard loss. When I got up, he took the football and hit me in the head. But afterward, all was forgiven."
In 2002, half a century after the Terps' win there, the Sugar Bowl staged a reunion of the game's surviving MVPs.
"Dad went there, received a commemorative watch and sat beside Archie Manning and this pantheon of college superstars who went on to play in the pros," Michael Modzelewski said. "We all called him 'The Legend' after that, but it never went to his head.
"Think of his life, coming out of coal-mining country with a choice of either going down into the bowels of the earth or finding a ticket out of western Pennsylvania. His own father spoke broken English, but dad made All-American and once had his picture taken at the White House beside Joe DiMaggio and [boxing's] Rocky Graziano. He took the Modzelewskis that far in just one generation."
Modzelewski is survived by his second wife, Joanne, also of West Sedona; his first wife, Mary, of Phoenix, Ariz.; a brother, Dick, of Eastlake, Ohio; sisters Betty Logan of Las Cruces, N.M. and Florence Nowicki of Natrona Heights, Pa.; sons Michael Modzelewski, of West Palm Beach, Fla.; Scott and Bruce Modzelewski, both of Phoenix; daughter Nancy Giacobbi, of Bodega Bay, Calif.; and three grandchildren.