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Unitas, Johnny (1933—)

Unitas, Johnny (1933—)

The gaudiest names on the gridiron often are quarterbacks. In the 1990s, such glamour boys as Joe Montana and Steve Young, Dan Marino and John Elway and Bret Favre have earned the bulk of National Football League fame. However, none of these superstar signal callers have anything on Johnny Unitas, otherwise known as "Mr. Quarterback," "The Golden Arm," and simply "Johnny U.," who played for the Baltimore Colts between 1956 and 1972. In his prime, Unitas was the league's most renowned, respected, and feared quarterback. As noted in his enshrinee data at the Football Hall of Fame, he was a "legendary hero," and an "exceptional field leader [who] thrived on pressure."

Johnny U.'s career is defined by a combination of luck, persistence, and hard work. He was born John Constantine Unitas in Pittsburgh, and began his quarterbacking career as a sophomore at St. Justin's High School when the first-string signal caller busted his ankle. He had a scant seven days to master his team's complete offense. As he neared graduation, the lanky six-footer with the signature crew cut hoped to be offered a scholarship to Notre Dame, but was denied his wish as the school determined that he probably would not add weight to his 138-pound frame. Instead, he attended the University of Louisville, from which he graduated in 1955.

While no college gridiron luminary, Unitas had impressed people enough to be drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unfortunately, the team was overloaded with signal call-ers—and its coach believed Unitas was "not intelligent enough to be a quarterback"—and so he was denied a slot on the Steelers' roster. Unable to hook up with another NFL team, he settled for work on a construction gang and a spot on the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams, where he earned $3 per game. Fortuitously, the Baltimore Colts called him in early 1956 and invited him to a try out the following season. He was signed to a $7,000 contract, and played for the Colts for the next 17 years before finishing his career in 1973 with the San Diego Chargers.

Unitas was the Babe Ruth, Michael Jordan, and Wayne Gretsky of quarterbacks. Upon his retirement, he held the NFL records for making 5,186 pass attempts and 2,830 completions, throwing for 40,239 total yards and 290 touchdowns, tossing touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games, and having 26 300-yard games. He also threw for 3,000 yards or more in three seasons, and piloted his team to three NFL championships (in 1958, 1959, and 1968) and one Super Bowl title (in 1971). Unitas was one of the stars of what is arguably the greatest game in NFL history: the Colts' 1958 title victory over the New York Giants, a 23-17 overtime win in which he completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards. Down 17-14 in the final minutes of the fourth quarter, he marched the Colts 85 yards; with seven seconds remaining on the clock, Steve Myhra booted a 20-yard, game-tying field goal. Then in overtime, Unitas spearheaded his team to 80 yards on thirteen plays, with Alan Ameche rushing for the game-winning touchdown.

Unitas was a five-time All-NFL selection, a three-time NFL Player of the Year, a ten-time Pro Bowl pick—and a three-time Pro Bowl MVP. He was named "Player of the Decade" for the 1960s, and was cited as the "Greatest Player in the First 50 Years of Pro Football." He was one of four quarterbacks—the others are Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh, and Joe Montana—named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team. He was inducted into the Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

In retirement, Unitas sported a crooked index finger on his passing hand: a souvenir of his playing career. He was fiercely proud of his reputation as a hard-nosed competitor who once declared, "You're not an NFL quarterback until you can tell your coach to go to hell!" He also has noted that playing in the NFL of the 1990s would be "a piece of cake. The talent's not as good as it once was.…[Defensive backs] used to be able to come up and knock you down at the line of scrimmage. If you tried to get up, they'd knock you down again, then sit on you and dare you to get up."

And he has been quick to declare that he should not be censured for his team's shocking 16-7 loss to Joe Namath and the underdog New York Jets in Superbowl III—the game that established the upstart American Football League as a rival of the NFL. For most of the 1968 season, Unitas had been plagued by a sore elbow. Earl Morrall, who had replaced Unitas in training camp and was the league MVP, started the game for the Colts. In the first half, the Jets' secondary intercepted three of his passes. Unitas, the aging, injured veteran of the football wars, heroically came off the bench in the fourth quarter to complete 11 of 24 passes, for 110 yards. Unfortunately, the Colts could muster only a single touchdown.

"I always tell people to blame [Colts coach Don] Shula for that," he once observed, "because if he had started me in the second half, I'd have got it."

—Rob Edelman

Further Reading:

Fitzgerald, Ed. Johnny Unitas: The Amazing Success Story of Mr. Quarterback, New York, Nelson, 1961.

Unitas, Johnny, and Ed Fitzgerald. Pro Quarterback, My Own Story. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1965.

——, with Harold Rosenthal. Playing Pro Football to Win. Garden City, New York, Doubleday, 1968.

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