Quarterback Johnny Unitas’ death on September 11 stirred childhood memories: Sunday afternoon pickup games played on empty church lots, NFL championships on television, or the solitary make-believe of an electric football game. Unitas was considered by most to be the greatest quarterback ever, and was credited by the late sportscaster Dick Schaap as the man primarily responsible for elevating football above baseball as the national pastime. There was nothing fancy about Unitas. A blue-collar quarterback with a crew cut and a simple, workmanlike effort, Unitas shredded the NFL’s staunchest defenses to ribbons each autumn Sunday afternoon. The image of Unitas on a black-and-white television set leading another come-from-behind victory was simply spellbinding. He could make the closing minutes of a football game seemingly go on forever. Expertly milking the clock for every precious second, Unitas invented the “two-minute” offense that eventually became an integral part of modern pro football.
|Johnny Unitas prepares to pass while Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings gives chase during a 1967 NFL game.|
Growing up Catholic in Pennsylvania, Unitas dreamed of playing college ball at Notre Dame but was rejected because he only weighed 138 pounds. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers out of the University of Louisville, he was released at season’s end because the Steelers had too many quarterbacks. He took a construction job in the Pittsburgh area in 1956, playing semi-pro football for the Bloomtown Rams on dirt fields “for three dollars a game and the promise of a cold shower,” according to Unitas. Baltimore’s starting quarterback broke his leg against the Chicago Bears and the back-up had chosen law school over the NFL when Unitas was picked up by the Colts for $7,000 a season. He threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown the first time he passed, and lost a fumble in each of his next two possessions. But the next year he led the Colts to their first winning season, and in 1958 he guided Baltimore to the first of back-to-back world championships over the New York Giants. Packer coaching legend Vince Lombardi said he was the greatest player to ever play the game.
For all his passing skills, Unitas considered his devotion to mental discipline his most vital asset as a quarterback. A master at finding vulnerabilities in opposing defenses, he astounded coaches with his ability to call the perfect plays in unpredictable situations. He was fabled for his toughness (quarterbacks were not protected back then as they are by today’s rules), which earned respect from teammates. Former Colts lineman Bubba Smith remembered the afternoon an opposing defensive lineman shoved Unitas’ head into the ground after a tackle. “He called the same play, let the same guy come through, and broke his nose with the football. I said, ‘That’s my hero.’” Former Colt tight end John Mackey said that playing with Unitas was like “being in a huddle with God.”
Comparing Johnny Unitas to the Almighty was not lost on my Sunday School pals. Conversation at church usually centered more on football than the Lord. We couldn’t wait to get home to watch Unitas rally the Baltimore Colts one more time. With his head tilted downward as if gazing at the ground, his black high-top shoes shuffling rapidly back into the pocket, his style of dropping back to pass was like that of no other quarterback. He appeared invincible in that white helmet with the big blue horseshoe on the side. For years I didn’t realize the logo was a horseshoe. To me it had always represented a big blue “U” for Unitas.