Unitas, John Constantine ("Johnny")

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UNITAS, John Constantine ("Johnny")

(b. 7 May 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; d. 11 September 2002 in Timonium, Maryland), college and professional football player, chosen by the Associated Press as the National Football League Player of the Decade for the 1960s.

Unitas was the third of four children of Leon and Helen Unitas. His father owned a small coal-delivery business, and his mother was a homemaker. When Unitas's father died in 1938, his mother briefly took over the business and then worked at a succession of odd jobs while taking night classes in bookkeeping. She eventually gained employment with the City of Pittsburgh and sold insurance. While his mother struggled to support the family, Unitas began a successful football career. At Saint Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, he won All-Catholic League honors as a quarterback. He graduated from Saint Justin's in 1951. Despite his success on the field, most college recruiters were un-impressed. Unitas weighed only 135 pounds as a freshman. His only scholarship offer came from the University of Louisville. Unitas grew to six feet, one inch and 195 pounds at Louisville and played extensively. During his senior season of 1954 he led the Cardinals to a record of 7–2 and married his high school sweetheart, Dorothy Jean Hoelle; they had five children.

Passing for 3,007 yards and twenty-seven touchdowns during his career at Louisville brought Unitas to the attention of the pro scouts. He was selected in the ninth round of the National Football League (NFL) draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. As one of four quarterbacks in training camp Unitas had few opportunities to play and was cut before the season began. He returned to Pittsburgh and worked as a pile driver on a construction crew. To stay in football shape, he earned $6 per game by playing for the Bloomfield Rams of the Greater Pittsburgh League. In the spring of 1956 Unitas was offered a tryout by the Baltimore Colts and made the team as a backup to George Shaw. When Shaw broke his leg during the fourth game of the season Unitas had his chance. His first game was a disaster. Coming in with the Colts ahead 21–20, he fumbled three times and threw an interception. Baltimore wound up losing 58–27. Soon, though, his talent began to show itself. In 1957 Unitas led the NFL in passing yardage and touch-downs and began a streak in which he would throw a touchdown pass in forty-seven consecutive games.

More important, with Unitas at quarterback the Colts began to gel. In 1958 Baltimore won the Western Conference title and met the New York Giants in the league championship. With the Colts trailing 17–14 with 1:56 to go, a large television audience saw Unitas complete seven consecutive passes to set up a Steve Myhra field goal and send the game into sudden-death overtime. In the extra period Unitas led the Colts on another long drive, to secure a 23–17 victory. The 1958 championship game often is considered the greatest game of professional football ever played. It also is considered vital to the growth of the sport. Before 1958 pro football lagged behind both the college game and major league baseball in popularity.

The drama of sudden-death overtime, the almost made-for-TV ending, and Unitas's own rags-to-riches story changed that. By the 1960s professional football had become America's dominant televised sport. The influx of television money encouraged expansion. The NFL added teams in Dallas, Minnesota, New Orleans, and Atlanta during the 1960s, while the oil billionaire Lamar Hunt started the successful American Football League (AFL). More exposure and the competition of rival leagues for players drove salaries upward and made media celebrities of the stars. As the quarterback who led the Colts to the championship in 1958 and again in 1959, Unitas was uniquely positioned to represent the game during the ensuing decade.

Unitas remained the Colts' starting quarterback throughout the 1960s, missing only the bulk of the 1968 season with injuries. He led Baltimore to the playoffs in 1964 and 1965 and watched them reach the Super Bowl in 1968. Throughout he remained one of the most feared players in the game. Unitas's most noted talent was his ability to understand defenses. The Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi said, "He is uncanny in his abilities, under the most violent pressure, to pick out the soft spot in a defense." During 1968's Super Bowl III, with the Colts hopelessly behind the New York Jets, a hobbled Unitas entered the game. The Jets defensive back Johnny Sample remembered that even though his team had the game in hand, Unitas's appearance was disconcerting. "He scared grown men just by taking the snap and looking your way," Sample said.

Beyond his skill Unitas was known for the style with which he played. Throughout his career he wore old-fashioned high-top football shoes and styled his hair in a crew cut. He was a team player, never seeking attention or celebrity. As the 1960s went on, the increase in player salaries and media attention, along with the flamboyant youth culture of the day, made Unitas seem like a throwback to an earlier time. The Jets quarterback during Super Bowl III, Joe Namath, sometimes wore a full-length mink coat on the sideline and was known for his wild social life and panty-hose commercials. Unitas saw such showmanship as detrimental to team unity.

Unitas remained with the Colts through the 1972 season; he led the team to victory in Super Bowl V in 1970. In June 1972 he and his wife divorced and he remarried, to Sandra Lemon; they had one child. In 1973 Unitas finished his career with the San Diego Chargers. He retired with 40,239 passing yards and 290 touchdowns. Both were records at the time. His streak of forty-seven consecutive games with a touchdown pass is still unequalled. Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Following his retirement Unitas worked several years as a broadcaster for the Columbia Broadcasting System. He coauthored three books, The Athlete's Handbook: How to Be a Champion in Any Sport (1979) and Improving Health and Performance in the Athlete (1979), with George Dintiman, and Playing Pro Football to Win (1968), with Harold Rosenthal. Unitas also became involved in several business ventures. Among the more successful were the Golden Arm Restaurant in Baltimore; the Unitas Management Corporation, a real estate development firm in Florida; and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation. Since 1987 the best college quarterback in America has received the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award. In 2002 Unitas became minority owner of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Pioneers of the Arena Football 2 (AF2) League. He died of a heart attack at age sixty-nine.

During the 1960s Unitas was regarded as the best player in the most popular spectator sport in America. His passing abilities made the Baltimore Colts regular candidates for the NFL playoffs, while his quiet demeanor and uncanny understanding of the game made him the epitome of team play.

Newspaper clippings and memorabilia are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. Unitas's autobiography, Pro Quarterback:My Own Story (1965), was written with Ed Fitzgerald. Lee Greene, The Johnny Unitas Story (1962), is a juvenile biography. Unitas is interviewed in Vince Bagli and Norman L. Macht, Sundays at 2:00 with the Baltimore Colts (1995), and Dave Klein, The Game of Their Lives (1976). A brief, but good biographical treatment is in Dave Anderson, Great Quarterbacks of the NFL (1965). An obituary is in the New York Times (12 Sept. 2002).

Harold W. Aurand, Jr.

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