As the 318th pick, Rosey was not expected to make it through training camp. Was that scouting report ever wrong! All he did for the next 13 years was transform the tackle position, and help the Giants reach six NFL title games. Frank Gifford—a favorite target of enemy tacklers—maintains that Rosey was the reason he was inducted into the Hall of Fame. Whether or not this is true, one thing is clear: Rosey Brown still ranks as the #1 "sleeper” selection of all-time.
Roosevelt Brown, Jr. was born on October 20, 1932 in Charlottesville, Virginia. Rosey’s mother called the shots in the Brown household, and she put a heavy emphasis on developing the brain—even has her son’s body developed in ways that made him tower over his classmates.
Rosey was an excellent student who was accelerated through elementary school and enrolled in high school at age 12. He also had an ear for music and the long arms needed to play the trombone. At Jefferson High School, he joined the school band.
During the halftime performances, the school’s football coach wondered why Jefferson’s trombone player was bigger than half the kids on his team. He informed Rosey that his marching band days were over. The teenager became a dominant offensive and defensive tackle, and was recruited by Morgan State College after his senior season. He was only 16 at the time.
At Morgan State, Rosey played football in the fall, captained the wrestling squad in the winter, and lettered in baseball in the spring. The school had an exceptional gridiron squad. The Bears played other all-black schools in the South Atlantic region. Coach Eddie Hurt scheduled one game in New York’s Polo Grounds, home of the Giants. Rosey was overwhelmed by the big city, but he liked the feel of playing in front of the raucous New York crowd.
With the NFL Draft
of the 1950s going 30 rounds deep, teams basically hung around until they
ran out of names to call—at that stage, no one expected to turn
up any real talent. When the Giants’ turn came in the 27th round,
someone mentioned that they had read something good about Rosey in the
Pittsburgh Courier, an African-American newsweekly that had named
him an All-American. Mara looked at the hulking tackle's vital stats (6-3,
255, 29-inch waist) and figured the team had nothing to lose, and just
like that Rosey—who had not yet turned 21—was a Giant. It
would not only be his first time playing against top-flight competition,
it would be the first time he had ever gone helmet-to-helmet with white
Rosey’s first contract paid him $2,700—if he made the team. This was very much in doubt the first day of training camp in St. Peter, Minnesota, when line coach Ed Kolman had to show Rosey how to get down in the correct three-point stance and teach him some other fundamentals of line play. Head coach Steve Owen had no idea who Rosey was, and threw him into the fire to find out if he was NFL material. He ordered Arnie Weinmeister to give the 19-year-old rookie the business. Weinmeister was not just the best pass rusher of his era—he was so good at pressuring the quarterback that Owen often ordered his ends to drop back into linebacking roles (the vaunted Umbrella Defense). Rosey took a frightful beating, but showed a range of blocking skills and enough creativity to convince Owen it would be smart to keep him around. The fact that he stayed on the field or ran extra laps after the other linemen had hit the locker room didn't hurt, either.
The Giants in the early 1950s were a team with a gritty old coach and a number of solid pros but—with the possible exception of defensive back Emlen Tunnell (Rosey’s future roommate)—no one who could dominate at their position. Year after year, they finished behind a team with players who did—the Cleveland Browns. The Giants, by contrast, were more of a team in transition.
During his rookie season in 1953, Rosey was promoted to starting right tackle after a few games, and joined a line that also featured fellow draft picks Ray Wietecha and Jack Stroud. Their job was to protect quarterback Charlie Conerly and block for workhorse back Eddie Price and Sonny Grandelius. New York has no receiving corps to speak of, so Conerly aimed most of his passes at his backfield, which included Kyle Rote and Frank Gifford, who also played defensive back.
The team got off to a slow start, losing close games to the Los Angeles Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers and and Washington Redskins. This trio of defeats submarined Nw York's season, and when Price went down, Owen tried to turn Gifford into a 60-minute man, which ran him into the ground. The Giants finished 3-9, but it was two defeats at the hands of the Browns that convinced the Mara family that it was time to end the Steve Owen era. The first, 7-0 at the Polo Grounds, was painful, and the second, 62-14 in Cleveland, was embarassing. Owen's run as coach, which had lasted more than 30 years, was over.
Despite the team's poor record, there were some bright spots. Everyone raved about Rosey. He used his quickness and upper body strength to distinguish himself as an extraordinary tackle. Against pass rushers, he was powerful enough to maintain contact and steer them away from Conerly without getting whistled for holding. If someone tried to shake-and-bake Rosey, he waited them out and then dove at their legs to cut them down—a move that is no longer legal. On running plays, Rosey blew open big holes at the point of attack.
On several occasions, Rosey pulled with the guards—an unheard of skill that the Giants would later make great use of. According to Rosey, this was not planned at first. On sweeps, his job was to cut off the defender pursuing from the inside. But he would get to that spot so quickly that sometimes his target wasn’t there. Always hustling, Rosey would keep running and eventually catch up to—and pass—the guards who were leading the play. There were only three opponents this tactice didn't work on. One was Weinmeister, and luckily Rosey only had to face him practice. The other two were Len Ford of the Browns and Ernie Stautner of the Steelers.
Rosey’s first meeting with Ford was a memorable one. After the rookie was beaten several times by the veteran end, Owen yanked him and threatened to cut him if he could not find a way to stop Ford. On the next series, Rosey practically tackled the Cleveland star. Now it was Ford's turn to deliver a threat, screaming that he would kill Rosey if he tried the same thing again. Rosey’s response? His career was over if he didn't stop Ford, so who cared what Cleveland defender said?
battle during Rosey's rookie year came against Don Colo, also of the Browns.
Colo chewed tobacco when he played. In their first meeting, he spit his
backwash in Rosey’s face while they were crouched at the line of
scrimmage. This was in the pre-facemask days, so Rosey took it right in
the eye. After the game, he learned how to chew tobacco himself. The next
time the teams met, Colo launched another tobacco-laced loogie at Rosey.
He spit right back. The ball was snapped and the play went off, but the
two giants kept at it.
When the Giants were at home, Rosey lived in Manhattan at the Hudson Hotel on 57th and 9th. On the road, he and Tunnell could not stay with the white players, so Wellington Mara arranged for them to stay with black families. Rosey loved this set-up. His hosts were always nice, and there was no curfew. When Gifford and Conerley found out what a great deal Rosey and "Em" had, they came over to hang out and drink beers in their room. When segregation ended, Rosey was actually disappointed to have to undergo the same bed checks and other indignities visited upon his white teammates.
Big changes came to the Giants for the 1954 campaign. Jim Lee Howell—a popular player with the team in the 1940s—was named head coach. He let the guys have fun, but he also let them know when it was time to get down to business. The team’s new offensive coach was all business all the time. His name was Vince Lombardi, late of West Point and formerly one of the famed Blocks of Granite at Fordham University.
Lombardi was an offensive lineman in the swirling, twirling blocking schemes employed by the Rams in the 1930s, and when he laid eyes on Rosey he thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Rosey enjoyed playing for the tough little guy. He was amazed at Lombardi’s ability to get the absolute best out of everyone.
Lombardi installed the power sweep on the New York offense, and gave his backs the option of throwing the ball if a receiver was open. Rosey always insisted that this was not Lombardi’s invention—that he and Kolman and ends coach Ken Kavanaugh dreamed it up together. The Giants’ moribund offense came alive, scoring 161 points in the first five weeks for a fantastic 4-1 start—one game up on the hated Browns. Cleveland reclaimed the division lead and finished 9-3 to New York's 7-5. The difference came dow to two Cleveland victories over the Giants, 24-14 and 16-7.
The improvement on offense was matched by an improvement on defense. Tom Landry, an All-Pro defensive back, was promoted to player-coach status. He not only made All-Pro again, he also introduced some clever wrinkles to the team’s 4-3-4 defense. Landry, by the way, also handled New York's punting duties.
The 1955 season started badly for the Giants, with losses to the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh and the Chicago Cardinals—the three worst teams in the division. The rest of the campaign went beautifully, however, as the offense and defense clicked and newcomers Alex Webster, Rosie Grier, Mel Triplett and Jimmy Patton found their sea legs. The Giants lost only two games the rest of the way but finished behind the Browns yet again. Rosey added a new skill to his resumé, as Howell added him to the kick return and punt coverage teams.
IKnowledgeable fans had reason to believe that 1956 would be New York's year. Rosey, Stroud, Wietecha, Dick Yelvington and Bill Austin—who comprised the offensive line—were all at the top of their games. Fittingly, the Giants finally fulfilled their promise, as Rosey came into his own. Playing in Yankee Stadium for the first time, the team became the Bronx Bombers of the NFL, administering an unmerciful pounding on opponents during an 8-3-1 campaign. The Giants took full advantage of their line’s blocking prowess, and ran the ball down opponents’ throats—an average of 40 times a game. Gifford, Webster and Triplett combined for 2000-plus rushing yards and found the end zone 17 times. Gifford added 51 catches and four more touchdowns (and threw for TDs) to become the NFL’s top offensive weapon (and the league MVP).
With the offense controlling the ball for 40 minutes a game, the defense teed off. Joining an already good squad was rookie Sam Huff, who patrolled the middle with unadulterated malice. Dick Modzelewski and Andy Robustelli—a couple of veterans brought in through trades—helped make the defense truly fearsome. Rosey got in on the fun, too. Howell inserted him into his goal-line defense, where his speed and aggressiveness saved many a touchdown over the years.
In the championship game against the Chicago Bears, the Giants struck early on a slippery field, when Rosey blew open a hole and Triplett shot through it for a 17-yard TD. The rest of the game went New York's way, as they took a 34-7 lead into the locker room at halftime. Things got so bad for the Bears in the second half that they abandoned the T-formation and reverted to the old double-wing. Things did not improve, and New York triumphed 47-7.
After the season,
the honors and awards came rolling in. Rosey was named All-Pro and the
NFL’s Lineman of the Year. No one could say enough good things about
him. With a few years experience under his belt, he was not just the fastest
lineman anyone had ever seen, he was also one of the smartest. Rosey simply
did not have a bad game, and the Giants relied on his spectacular consistency.
They also liked how he shared his knowledge with his teammates. More than
a good head for the game, he had a good head, period. Many was the off-season
when he would return home to Virginia and find a job as a teacher in a
Giants fans had every reason to expect a return trip to the title game in 1957, but they did not count on running into Jim Brown. The Cleveland rookie transformed a team that was supposed to be rebuilding into a tough competitor. When New York stumbled in late-season games against the Steelers and San Francisco 49ers, the Browns slipped past them and won the division. On paper, the Giants looked the same. Gifford and Conerly had excellent years, and the defense recorded two shutouts. Rosey was voted All-Pro again, along with Stroud and Wietecha.
The Giants got back on track in 1958, but needed victories in their final two contests to advance to the playoffs. These games, however, were against the previous year’s two best teams, the Lions and Browns. The Giants trailed Detroit by five points in the fourth quarter, but squeezed out a 19-17 win. Against Cleveland, Brown ran for a 65-yard touchdown on the first play from scrimmage, bringing the home fans to their feet. New York restored order and tied the score late. Then with less than a minute left, Pat Summerall booted a 49-yard field goal in the snow to produce a 13-10 victory.
The two teams met again in Cleveland the following Sunday in a playoff to decide the Eastern Conference champion. The Giants would not be denied, slamming the door on a stunned Browns club 10-0. This victory set up the famous sudden-death championship game on December 28th against the Baltimore Colts for the NFL title.
The momentum in this epic title contest turned early on a couple of Gifford fumbles, but New York managed to rally for a 17-14 fourth-quarter lead. With less than two minutes in regulation, Johnny Unitas worked the Colts into range for the tying field goal.
The Giants got the ball first in the ensuing overtime, but only moved it to their 29-yard-line after three downs. Rosey felt the New York line was getting the better of the Colt defense, and was disappointed that Howell did not keep the offense on the field for fourth down. Until the day he died, Rosey insisted that had the Giants gone for it, they would have been NFL champs.
Of course, New York
punted, and Unitas maneuvered Baltimore down the field to the Giants’
one-yard-line. Alan Ameche plunged in for the winning score. Rosey was
a member of the goal line defense, but as the famous photo of the winning
play shows, Unitas chose to run the ball the other way.
The 1959 season found the Giants on top of the East again, this time with a sparkling 10-2 record. Once again, the O-line was anchored by the three '53 rookies—Rosey, Stroud and Wietecha. Conerly finished the year as the NFL’s top-ranked passer, and Rosey earned All-Pro honors for the fourth straight season.
A play against the Redskins that year epitomized Rosey as a football player. Gifford got the pitchout on a sweep and, as usual, Rosey was running interference. He took out two tacklers with one block just as Gifford turned the corner and began streaking toward the goal line, 79 yards away. As he broke into the open, Gifford saw a Washington tackler angling toward him. Out of nowhere, Rosey reappeared, sprinted ahead of Gifford, and erased the final defender.
The Giants and Colts met again for the championship, this time in Baltimore. The game was close until the fourth quarter, when the Colts exploded for 24 points for a 31-16 victory. Though the conclusion of the season was disappointing for Rosey, he looked back upon it fondly nonetheless. Darrel Dess, a lineman out of N.C. State, joined the Giants that year, and the two became fast friends. Dess played for New York for a decade.
The 1960 campaign belonged to the Eagles, who ended New York’s championship hopes with a November victory that saw Gifford get close-lined by Chuck Bednarik. The star runner lay motionless on the field, and the Giants were stopped dead in their tracks. With the 36-year-old Conerly rarely healthy, the best the team could do was limp home at 6-4-2. Rosey was 28, at the height of his powers. Films from this era that show Gifford and Alex Webster running around end—usually with Rosey as the lead blocker from his tackle spot.
Still, there was some
life left in the Giants. In 1961, Allie Sherman took over as coach and
Conerly was replaced in the second game by veteran Y.A. Tittle. The offense
rediscovered its rhythm, and New York finished 10-3-1 to claim the East
crown. But dreams of another championship ended on a frozen field in Green
Bay, as the Giants blew two chances for touchdowns early in the game and
watched as the Packers rolled to a 37-0 win. They fell prey to their own
power sweep, courtesy of Lombardi, who was now running it to perfection
in Green Bay.
In 1962, Tittle had another excellent year. With the offensive line giving him plenty of protection, he threw for a remarkable 33 touchdowns. The Giants started the season 3-2, then ran the table to win the East with a 12-2 record. It was the team’s fifth trip to the NFL championship game in Rosey's first 10 seasons. (He was also garnedered his seventh All-Pro nod.)
This time the Packers came to New York, where they found the wind-swept sub-freezing weather to their liking. A pair of Giant fumbles led to two Green Bay touchdowns, and the Packers won again, 16-7. Rosey and the goal line unit were almost the heroes of this game, after stopping Bart Starr from making it 23-7, but Tittle could not move the ball the other way.
The Giants were an old team in 1963. Wietecha retired, and Rosey and Stroud were now in their 30s. After getting shutout 31-0 by the Steelers in the season’s second week, it looked like New York had nothing left in the tank. But the Giants surprised even themselves, squeezing out victory after victory and losing just two more games the rest of the way. Rosey was a major part of this success.He helped keep the line together, alerting his teammates to new defensive sets like an on-field coach. The team had come to depend on his keen eye over the years, and as the season wore on, it was becoming clear that ’63 would be Rosey’s last hurrah.
Against the Bears in the NFL title game, it looked as if they Giants might have one more rabbit up their sleeves. They scored a touchdown in the first quarter and could have had more, but Del Shofner dropped a TD pass in the end zone. After Chicago ted the score, New York went ahead on a Don Chandler field goal. Unfortunatelym Tittle was too banged up to do anything in the second half, and Ed O’Bradovich made the game-turning play when he picked off a New York pass. The Bears scored to go ahead 14-10, and intercepted two more Tittle tosses in the fourth quarter to ice the game.
The following year,
the Giants crashed and burned, going 2-12-2. Things improved somewhat
in 1965, when the Giants finished 7-7. By then, however, Rosey was done.
Pain in his legs had been diagnosed as phlebitis (inflammation of the
veins), and he was told he could die if he continued to play. He hung
up his pads after 13 seasons—eight straight as an All-Pro and 10
straight as a Pro Bowl pick. His last NFL appearance, in fact, was in
the 1966 Pro Bowl in Los Angeles.
Was Rosey the best lineman of his era? He was certainly the fastest and probably the most intuitive. Had he played in today's age of highlight films and instant replays, his unbelievable downfield blocks would have made him one of the most-watched stars in the game. As it was, he was eyeballed by more fans than any other interior lineman of his day. The only man who gave Rosey a run for the money was Jim Parker of the Colts, who was taller and heavier, but not quite as athletic. Take your pick. No one in the 1950s or 1960s wanted to see either man rumbling toward him.
After his playing career ended, Rosey did not stay unemployed for long. The Giants, who always claimed he was like an extra coach, made it official and added him to their staff. Rosey began as assistant line coach and then became head line coach. Later, he scouted for the team. In 1971, Rosey discovered a sleeper of his own in John Mendenhall, an undersized defensive tackle out of Grambling who became a Pro Bowl performer for New York. In 1975,
Rosey was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975, becoming just the second full-time offensive lineman to earn that honor. Parker was the first, in 1973.
Rosey remained with
the Giants as a scout until his death from a heart attack on June 9, 2004.
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