It has been 10 years since Johnny Unitas passed away at the age of 69. Many of today’s NFL fans only know him as a name tied to the hallowed past of football, and few can recall watching him play.
His was the first sports biography I ever read (I think I was only 7 or 8 years old), and I have a vague recollection of seeing him in his final year as a Colt – by which time he was more of a great memory than a great player.
Even though I was (and still am) a die-hard New York Giants fan, the story of Johnny Unitas forever sealed a special bond with me. I suspect that there are thousands, if not millions, of others like myself who have a fondness for the underdog that becomes a champion, or the ugly duckling that becomes the beautiful swan. Such is the case with “Johnny U”.
Unitas had been a quarterback at Louisville, then played in what is the equivalent of semi-pro football in Pittsburgh (after getting cut by the Steelers). He tried out for the Colts in 1956 and made the squad.
In this September 23, 2002 Sports Illustrated, Frank Deford writes of watching the dawn of Unitas in Baltimore:
The quarterback for the Colts then was George Shaw, the very first pick in the NFL draft the year before, the man ordained to lead a team that was coalescing into a contender. Didn’t we wish, in Baltimore! Didn’t we dream! The Colts had Alan (the Horse) Ameche and Lenny (Spats) Moore and L.G. (Long Gone) Dupre to carry the ball and Raymond Berry and Jim Mutscheller to catch it and Artie Donovan and Big Daddy Lipscomb and Gino Marchetti to manhandle the other fellows when they had the pigskin. Then one day, as it is written, Shaw got hurt in a game, and YOU-ni-tass came in, hunched of shoulder, trotting kind of funny. He looked crooked, is how I always thought of him. Jagged. Sort of a gridiron Abraham Lincoln.
His first pass was intercepted and run back for a touchdown, and his first hand-off was botched, but Unitas stuck with it and eventually took over in Baltimore, and by 1957 was the established starting quarterback for the Colts. His unorthodox throwing style and non-athletic appearance left many wondering just how long he’d last, but with his teammates and coaches there was no question about the ugly duckling’s abilities:
But then, there couldn’t have been a mother’s son anywhere who knew exactly what Unitas had in store for us. Marchetti, apparently, was the first one to understand. It was a couple of weeks later, and he was lying on the training table when the equipment manager, Fred Schubach, wondered out loud when Shaw might come back Marchetti raised up a bit and said, “It doesn’t matter. Unitas is the quarterback now.”
Evidently all the other Colts nodded; they’d just been waiting for someone to dare express what they were beginning to sense. Marchetti had fought in the Battle of the Bulge when he was a teenager and thus, apparently, had developed a keen appreciation for things larger than life.
The underdog from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania had become Baltimore’s general, and on December 28, 1958 he would lead the Colts to the NFL Championship against the New York Giants in what is still referred to as the “Greatest Game Ever Played”. It was a nationally televised game – and the first overtime game in NFL history – that would usher in a new era for professional football, and Unitas was the unexpected hero at the front of it.
Before his career was over, he would hold numerous NFL records that included being the first to throw for 40,000 yards (in spite of the fact that, back then seasons were only 12 or 14 games long), and throwing touchdowns in 47 consecutive games – a record broken by Drew Brees this season (52 years after Unitas set the record). He was a three-time NFL MVP, a three-time Pro Bowl MVP, and would lead Baltimore to its first three NFL championships (including Superbowl V).
Prior to Bert Jones, Jim Harbaugh, Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck, there was Johnny Unitas. He of the hunched shoulders, crew cut, and trademark high-top shoes was the first in the lineage of great Colts quarterbacks.
Yet, it wasn’t the fact that he was the first that set him apart from the others and endeared Unitas to football fans everywhere. No, it was the fact that he was one of us. Some of the other big names of his era arrived in the NFL with high expectations. Players like Frank Gifford, Alan Amechi, Raymond Berry, Sam Huff and Paul Hornung entered the league preordained to busts in Canton.
Johnny Unitas wasn’t a “chosen one”. He came from nothing special and simply worked himself into a Hall of Fame quarterback. All the odds were against him, but he ignored those odds. His is the great American story, and that is why I keep the magazine honoring him framed on the wall right next to the desk where I write this article. It reminds me that no matter what anyone else tells you, keep fighting for what you believe in. If you truly have confidence in yourself, with perseverance you can achieve your dreams.