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Greatest Athlete #1: ‘Big Ed’ was Riverhead’s humble Giant
The inscription on Ed Danowski’s headstone at St. Isidore Cemetery in Riverhead is a simple one. Like so many of the grave sites at the Reeves Avenue resting place, it says very little about the man buried below. In fact, it merely reads Danowski, Edward F., 1911-1997.
It’s hard to imagine Danowski wanting it any other way.
“Heck no,” said longtime Riverhead resident Butch Densieski. “He didn’t think it was any great feat what he had done.”
But say for a second Danowski had been a less modest man. Say he had been the type of person who would want everyone to know all that he had accomplished. Then what might the headstone say?
Here lies Edward F. Danowski, a farmer’s son from Aquebogue. Born in 1911, he won two NFL championships as a halfback for the New York Giants. He would retire young to serve his country in the second World War, before later becoming head football coach at his alma mater, Fordham. He would live the last 62 years of his life as the loving husband of wife Josephine and the father of two boys, before passing away in 1997. He was the greatest athlete this area has ever known.
“Big Ed” was one of 15 Danowski children who grew up on the family farm in Aquebogue, where his Polish immigrant father, Anton, grew cauliflower and potatoes.
While much of his Riverhead High School athletic days has been erased in history, Danowski was an all-county star in football, basketball and baseball growing up.
The former Suffolk County News of Sayville once described Danowski as “one of the crack players on the Riverhead High School eleven for several years.”
He was a good enough performer in his high school years to have the opportunity to play three sports for Fordham University upon his graduation in 1930.
In the fall, he was a member of the Rams football team, while for three seasons in the winter he played basketball, and he was even on the track team for one spring season, according to his youngest son, John.
But Danowski, who played the halfback position in football — which in those days meant he served as the primary passer in the single-wing offense — wasn’t exactly handed the keys to the Fordham offense straight out of high school.
He played on the freshman team in 1930 and only finally got his first shot on the varsity level the following year. But it wouldn’t be at halfback, where captain John Janis already brought several years of experience.
Instead, Fordham Coach Frank Cavanaugh inserted the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Danowski into the lineup at fullback that October for a tilt against Boston College. The Rams cruised to a 20-0 victory at Fenway Park that afternoon, and The New York Times counted Danowski among the stars of the game in its recap the next morning.
“The second year player displayed such excellent ability in the backfield on Monday, getting off a 70-yard punt and making two lengthy end runs, that Coach Cavanaugh is hopeful of developing him into a triple-threat player.”
Danowski would continue playing the rest of his sophomore season at fullback, where he started most of the team’s games. The Rams would finish the campaign at 6-1-2 with their lone loss coming in a 14-13 heartbreaker against Bucknell in the season finale.
The junior from Riverhead wasted little time establishing himself as the star of the team when Fordham returned to the field in 1932. Finally starting at halfback, he led the Rams to a 69-0 victory in the season opener against the University of Baltimore, scoring 16 of those points himself with two touchdowns and four extra points. Just five minutes into the game, he scored his first touchdown of the season.
Danowski went on to contribute one more rushing touchdown and six more extra points that season, helping to lead Coach Cavanaugh’s squad to a 6-2 record in 1932, as the Rams averaged defeating their opponents by a score of 24-3.
More than 40,000 spectators packed into Yankee Stadium that November to watch Danowski throw a 27-yard touchdown pass that handed the Rams a 7-0 victory over NYU in the city’s famed “Bronx Bowl.”
At the conclusion of the season, Fordham’s 21 returning lettermen met to discuss the team’s plans for the 1933 season. At the meeting, each one of the players voted Danowski captain for his senior season.
“Danowski’s election marks the first time in recent years that a New York State resident has been honored with the football captaincy at Fordham,” The New York Times reported.
The following April, Danowski was presented with Fordham football’s most valuable player award at the university’s athletic dinner.
During the offseason, Fordham hired a new coach. Jim Crowley is perhaps best known as one of the “four horsemen of Notre Dame,” a quartet of backs who lost only two games in three years playing together for the legendary football program in the early to mid-1920s.
By 1933, he was an established coach, who had most recently guided the Michigan State University program. But when Cavanaugh resigned that winter following six seasons at Fordham, “Sleepy Jim” was wooed to the Bronx.
“As football players,” Danowski told The New York Times after the team met to discuss the hiring, “we all were acquainted with the ‘four horsemen of Notre Dame,’ and naturally had the deepest admiration for Jim Crowley, who was one of them. Now we have the opportunity to play under his coaching and I am sure that every man on the Fordham squad will be working to establish our own edition of that great quartet.”
Crowley would bring with him the Knute Rockne system, and as the halfback and forward passer of the offense, Danowski had a chance to shine.
He didn’t disappoint.
By the second week of the season, after victories that saw the Rams outscore their opponents by a total of 109-0, the now speedier Danowski had already scored four touchdowns, besting his junior year totals.
By the time the season was over, Danowski — who also played defensive back, punted and served as the team’s placekicker — had led Fordham to a 6-2 season. He finished the year with nine touchdowns. His play on the field that season was good enough to earn him honorable mention all-American honors from the Associated Press.
After the Rams’ season ended in a loss to Oregon that November, The New York Times singled out Danowski as the squad’s unquestioned star. “The game brought to a close the undergraduate career of Danowski. While it is obviously unjust to single any one man from a squad in modern football, the fact remains that Danowski leaves behind him a vivid record of courage, leadership and gridiron ability.”
Finished with college the following summer, Danowski received an interesting phone call. It was New York Giants owner Tim Mara, who had bought the newly formed franchise for just $500 nine years earlier.
He wanted Danowski to come play for him in the NFL and he was going to pay him $200 per game.
With a couple months between graduation and the start of his new career in professional football, Danowski headed home in the summer of 1934 and spent time with his family in Aquebogue.
He decided to join brothers Pete and Charlie on a summer league baseball team that traveled around Suffolk County, playing games in Patchogue and across the North and South forks. Ed played shortstop for the team, which went by the name of the Riverhead All-Stars.
On June 10, the All-Stars were playing a game against the Quogue Fire Department. Umping the game was Howard Jones of East Quogue, and Danowski didn’t like the home cooking he was serving for the Quogue squad.
After one particular called third strike, Danowski let him have it. As he walked off the field, he flicked his bat, which reportedly struck Jones. A fight broke out and Ed’s brothers jumped in.
All three Danowskis were arrested. But a little more than a week later, the umpire declined to press charges and the brothers were cleared of any wrongdoing, according to the County Review.
John Danowski said his father never mentioned the brawl to him. John did, however, stumble on an old newspaper article about the incident one day after his father had passed away. He shared it with his cousin Peter, an attorney from Riverhead. The two had a laugh about their old men fighting side by side in a rumble.
“I guess blood’s thicker than water,” John joked in a recent telephone interview.
The Danowski brothers continued to play summer baseball together, even after Ed began his NFL career.
Like Danowski, Jim Underwood was a Riverhead High running back who would go on to play college ball at Fordham. In his 1950 senior program, which he still has at his Riverhead home, a blurb was written about Danowski, then the school’s head football coach.
The couple paragraphs make reference to Danowski’s time with the Rams and how it wasn’t until later in his career there that he blossomed as a key cog in the offense.
The short bio goes on to say how Danowski experienced similar growing pains in his rookie season with the Giants.
“But Harry Newman suffered an injury and Danowski got his chance,” Underwood read from the program. “Once he got in there, he played very well. Giants coach Steve Owen found only one glaring fault, Danowski’s reluctance to call his own number enough.”
That’s not to say Danowski didn’t play his rookie year. In fact, he even scored a touchdown in his NFL debut.
After the regular season ended, he was among the 23 Giants awarded a full share from playoff proceeds, with 60 percent of the total ticket haul going to the winning players in the NFL championship game showdown against the Chicago Bears.
That 1934 championship game, of which Danowski was among the stars, is one of the most famous games ever played.
During the regular season, Chicago had edged New York in a 10-9 victory at the Polo Grounds.
Just four weeks later, the Bears were back in the Big Apple for the title game, which was to again be played at the former upper Manhattan stadium.
On the morning of the Dec. 9 game, amidst 9-degree temperatures, Giants team treasurer John Mara visited the field to assess the conditions. What he found was a frozen field that looked more like an ice rink.
He phoned Coach Owen and team captain Ray Flaherty to alert them to the unusual field conditions.
Flaherty had a suggestion. One time while he was playing for Gonzaga University, his team had gained an advantage by wearing sneakers on an icy field instead of cleats, which wouldn’t give the players proper traction.
Today, the 1934 NFL Championship Game is affectionately referred to as “The Sneaker Game.”
The Giants, who borrowed basketball sneakers from the Manhattan College hoops team for the big game, were down by 10-3 when they took to the field in the second half with the peculiar foot apparel and stuck it to Chicago. They went on to win the game, 30-13.
After the contest, Bears Hall of Famer Bronko Nagurski said the sneakers made a big difference in the outcome.
Danowski, who also played defensive back in the game, scored one rushing touchdown and threw for another in the second-half comeback.
After the final tally from ticket proceeds was calculated, the 23 Giants fortunate enough to receive a full share were given their checks.
Danowski was paid $604 for helping to win the NFL title.
In the offseason, Danowski married Josepine Sobocinski in a small ceremony attended by only a few friends and family members at St. Isidore R.C. Church in Riverhead.
Josephine grew up in Jamesport, right down the street from the Danowski farm, and she also attended Riverhead High School.
Being a newlywed didn’t slow Danowski down any as he embarked on an impressive sophomore campaign with the Giants. He finished the 1935 season having completed 57 of 135 attempts for a total of 795 yards. His 50.5 completion percentage set a new NFL record for passing efficiency.
It was a different era back then, to say the least. Still a few years before Bears Coach Clark Shaughnessy and quarterback Sid Luckman would advance the game with the modernization of the T-offense, Danowski was a star halfback passer in the single-wing.
He would spend each of his first few seasons as a starter among the top passers in the NFL.
By the time Danowski renewed his contract for the 1938 season, he held three NFL passing records. And that season he broke two of his own marks by completing 54 percent of his passes, which also improved his NFL-best .498 career completion percentage.
The 1938 season saw Danowski win his second NFL championship with a 23-17 win over the Green Bay Packers. He threw a pair of touchdown passes in the game, including the game-winner to Hank Soar. Danowski also recorded an interception in the game while playing defensive back.
John Danowski said his father would acknowledge later in life that it would be difficult to compare the game as it is played today to what it was in the era when he played, but he took pride in knowing the strategy of the game remains largely the same.
“It was always about ball control,” John Danowski said. “Some elements of the game have always been consistent.”
The 1938 season was the last big one of Danowski’s career. He missed part of the 1939 campaign after being called home to Aquebogue to be at his ailing mother’s bedside, and later in the season he suffered a leg injury.
For the first time in his career as a starter, Danowski finished outside of the top 10 in passing, and he announced his retirement soon after the season.
Strangely, that didn’t mean an end to Danowski’s football career. He later played halfback on the Jersey City Giants semi-pro team in 1940 before making his return to the New York Giants in 1941 as a player-coach. He played only six games that season as injuries cut his season short.
Playing without Danowski, the G-Men lost their final regular-season game, 21-7, to the Brooklyn Dodgers. But the Big Apple showdown didn’t receive front-page treatment in the following day’s edition of The New York Times.
Another major event a half a world away dominated the headlines that day after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, sending the United States to war.
Any chance of a Danowski comeback for the 1942 NFL season ended in June, when he enlisted in the Navy. He joined 21 other Giants in heading to war that year. He served until 1945, spending much of his enlistment in Hawaii and Guam.
Danowski finished his NFL career having tossed 38 touchdown passes, while rushing for four more.
He later said that if NFL rosters were deeper in those days, he could have returned to the NFL after the war to serve as a punter.
To this day, a 76-yard punt Danowski struck against the Detroit Lions in the 1935 championship game remains the longest punt ever kicked in NFL playoffs.
During the war, Fordham University eliminated its football program and didn’t bring it back until 1946.
Danowski, who had earned a graduate teaching degree from Columbia University while playing for the Giants, coached football and taught physical education in upstate Haverstraw, N.Y., after returning from the war in 1945.
When he heard his alma mater was looking for a head coach to start the football program back up, Danowski threw his hat in the ring. Two months later, he was hired on a three-year, $15,000 contract.
But Fordham, which had played games in front of as many as 80,000 fans during Danowski’s time as a player, was not looking for a return to big-time football. The Jesuit university’s new president, Rev. Robert Gannon, was not interested in devoting significant resources toward re-establishing the Rams as a college football power.
That didn’t stop the school from scheduling tough opponents, though. Over the next several years, the team played games against strong programs like LSU, West Virginia, Penn State, Rutgers and Army.
It was a dreadful first season back for Danowski and the Rams, who finished the year 0-7, scoring just 43 points along the way.
In 1947, Fordham increased its budget for football to bring in a hotshot new coach from New Jersey to lead the freshman squad.
Vince Lombardi had been a freshman on the Fordham team during Danowski’s all-American senior year. The offensive lineman would later make up one part of the school’s famed “Seven Blocks of Granite” blocking tandem.
Riverhead’s own Jim Underwood played on Lombardi’s freshman team that season, as a member of a unique class that featured many veterans of war who returned to Fordham for an education.
While Danowski picked up his first head coaching win in 1947, a 12-0 victory over a Merchant Marine Academy team that was shut out five times that season, the Rams went winless in their seven other games.
Lombardi, who had installed the T-offense with the freshman squad and endured a great deal of success as a result, was promoted to varsity assistant for the 1948 season to run the offense for Danowski.
There was no love lost between Danowski and Lombardi, a pair of prideful gridiron lifers who didn’t exactly see eye to eye. It was no secret that Lombardi had his eye on the Fordham job and all that stood in his way was the one year left on Danowski’s contract.
The Rams won three games in 1948, including a surprising 26-0 victory over rival NYU, a victory that saved Danowski’s job.
While it was widely reported during the season that Lombardi might replace him at season’s end, Danowski stayed on to coach the Rams, and Lombardi would instead move to West Point, where he became the head coach of Army football.
In his book “When Pride Still Mattered,” Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Maraniss pulls no punches in his description of Danowski, whom he refers to as “Potato Ed,” a moniker at least one New York Times columnist grew fond of in the coach’s time at Fordham.
“Lombardi did most of the coaching,” Maraniss wrote. “… Potato Ed, as one player described it, stood in the corner and chewed tobacco.”
But that’s not how Underwood remembers it. The 1950 Fordham graduate said that while Lombardi was a great coach and a leader of the offense, it was always Danowski’s team.
“Danowski was the head coach,” Underwood said. “He called the shots.”
“He was very knowledgeable, but not too flamboyant along the sidelines,” Underwood said of Danowski, who brought him to the school at the recommendation of a mutual friend from Riverhead.
Underwood’s senior season in 1950 was Danowski’s finest as a Rams head coach. The squad went 8-1, losing by only a point to Yale for the team’s lone defeat.
“He was a good coach,” Underwood recalled. “He didn’t just tell us what we did right, but he’d tell us what we did wrong when we were wrong.”
Danowski continued at Fordham through the 1954 season, when he tendered his resignation. He compiled a 29-44-3 record in nine seasons with the Rams.
Almost immediately after Danowski stepped down, Lombardi sent Fordham his résumé. But he never assumed his dream job at his alma mater after the school dropped its football program before the 1955 season.
Lombardi instead went on to become the greatest coach in NFL history. His Green Bay Packers teams of the 1960s won five NFL championships and the first two Super Bowls. Today, the trophy given to the winning Super Bowl team is called the Lombardi Trophy.
Danowski and Lombardi would never count each other as friends.
When the Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame was created in 1990, Ed Danowski was not a member of the museum’s inaugural class. This did not sit well with Butch Densieski of Northampton, who along with fellow Riverhead firefighter Charles Niewadomski circulated ballots around Riverhead to make sure Danowski wasn’t forgotten the following year.
“Butch called me right after the first inductions and started asking why Big Ed wasn’t in and asking what he could do to get him in,” Suffolk Sports Hall of Fame secretary Guy Dellecave told Newsday in 1991. “Butch never let up. I think he coordinated and hand carried ballots from almost everybody in the Town of Riverhead and Patchogue into us on Danowski’s behalf.”
Danowski would be elected later that year.
Densieski was related to Danowski through a pair of marriages — his own wife was a Danowski, and his aunt had married one of Ed Danowski’s brothers. He said he was introduced to Ed by his uncle in the late 1970s, and the two struck up a friendship.
Danowski was incredibly modest about all of his accomplishments. In fact, Densieski said his friend hardly talked about his career in the NFL.
“I used to have a garden in my backyard,” Densieski recalled. “Ed would see that and want to talk all day about that. He never seemed to want to talk much about football.”
John Danowski, who was born shortly after his father left Fordham, said his old man continued to enjoy the game but didn’t dwell too much on stories of his past as a player.
“He was a quiet man,” he said of his father. “A very humble man.”
Danowski moved his family to East Meadow after he was done coaching at Fordham, and he served 23 years as a junior high school physical education teacher and coach.
“My father was a teacher at heart,” said John Danowski, who followed in his father’s coaching footsteps and won an NCAA championship in 2010 as the head coach of Duke lacrosse. “He really enjoyed that aspect of his life.”
After retirement, Ed and Josephine moved to Patchogue where Danowski grew strawberries, lettuce, peas and lima beans on his two-acre property. It was an homage to his days growing up in Aquebogue.
He maintained a great respect for the Giants, who sent him three tickets to every game until his final days. When he died of complications from Alzheimer’s in February 1997, the Mara family sent a floral arrangement to F.J. McLaughlin Funeral Home in Riverhead, where a memorial service was held.
Speaking to the News-Review for Danowski’s obituary, former Riverhead Supervisor Jim Stark recalled two sides of Riverhead’s Giant.
“[When I met him as a kid] he was an awfully big man. He had a physical structure that was enormous,” Stark said. “But later, as the generation gap closed and I got to know him, I found that he was a very gentle man, a good family man who never lost sight of his Riverhead roots.”
John Danowski said his father felt a fierce loyalty to his North Fork upbringing.
“Even when we were in East Meadow and we were coming out to Riverhead to visit family for the weekend, dad would say we were going home,” the son recalled. “I would say, ‘Dad, this is home.’ But he’d say back to me, ‘Riverhead is home, son. Riverhead will always be home.’ ”