Hall of Famer left Rams at just the right time

Andy Robustelli's passing this week focused attention on the New York Giants teams he helped turn into champions.

Rightfully so.

I also wondered whatever would compel the Los Angeles Rams to trade such an outstanding player months after Robustelli helped them reach the 1955 championship game. The answer, that Robustelli wanted to be closer to his Connecticut roots, contrasted with current NFL norms. The world is much smaller in the age of easy communication and 6-hour flights between New York and Los Angeles.

Differences between then and now came into sharper focus Wednesday when I reached out to one of Robustelli's teammates on that 1955 Rams team.

Ron Waller, 78, went to the Pro Bowl as a rookie running back, although he was much more than that in an era of 33-man rosters and 12-game seasons.

Waller rushed for 716 yards and seven touchdowns, caught 24 passes, returned 14 punts and averaged better than 27 yards on his 17 kick returns. He went to camp as a running back, then left for three weeks to play defensive back under Curly Lambeau in the College All-Star Game (his team beat the pros). Upon returning to the Rams, Waller opened the season at receiver, only to switch back to running back when Elroy "Crazy Legs" Hirsch came out of retirement. Tom Fears was another Hall of Fame receiver on that team.

The smaller rosters of that era favored versatility over the specialization of the current NFL game.

Robustelli was one of the Rams' best defensive players back then. The defense fell off statistically once the Rams traded him to the Giants before the 1956 season.

"It was a great loss for us at that position," Waller said.

Blaming the Rams' slide from 8-3-1 with Robustelli in 1955 to 4-8 without him the next season, however convenient, would miss the bigger story. Quarterback Norm Van Brocklin clashed with coach Sid Gillman over which man would call the plays. Gillman benched Van Brocklin for most of the 1956 season. The Rams weren't the same.

"Van Brocklin, who has been known to run the same unsuccessful play three times simply to prove that it can work, does not take kindly to the strict sideline direction of the Paul Brown school of coaching," Tex Maule wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1958, "and often Gillman's messages, via shuttling linemen, only irritated Van Brocklin."

Robustelli got out of Los Angeles at just the right time. He was 30 years old and would win six conference titles with the Giants by the time he played his final game at age 39.

Waller, much younger, didn't fare so well with Rams management. Attempts to parlay his early success into a better contract went nowhere.

"I went in to management -- we didn't have agents back in those days -- and told them I wanted $15,000 for my second-year contract," said Waller, who had earned $8,000 in salary with a $1,000 bonus as the 15th player chosen in the 1955 draft. "And the general manager, who was Pete Rozelle, believe it or not, said, 'Son, you gotta be in the league a long time before you ever make $15,000."