American football player
Ignored and overlooked in his early years, Johnny Unitas went on to become one of the greatest quarterbacks in football history. Unitas, whose passing ability earned him the nickname "the Golden Arm," led the winning team in what is widely regarded as the greatest game in the annals of professional football. His was in some ways a Horatio Alger story, but his heroism never stopped him from being human, and thus his career served as a reminder that even the greatest of gridiron giants is still just a man. On the day he died, September 11, 2002, America was busy commemorating the terrorist attacks that had occurred exactly a year earlier, and thus Unitas, always known for his stoicism, passed quietly from the scene. Yet football had been changed forever because of him.
The third of Leon and Helen Unitas's fourth children was born John Constantine Unitas, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 7, 1933. The family was of Lithuanian descent, and strongly Catholic. Leon, who operated a small coal-delivery business, died when his son was just five years old. Helen took over the business, and with that and odd jobs, she supported the family.
Unitas decided he wanted to become a professional football player when he was just 12 years old. As quarterback for St. Justin's High School, a position he won after the original quarterback broke his ankle, he made enough of a name for himself that as a senior he earned a spot on Pittsburgh's All-Catholic High School team. This was to be his greatest success for half a decade.
Laboring in Obscurity
As a high-school senior, Unitas already sported the crewcut that would be his trademark. He stood six feet tall, but weighed only 138 pounds, making him light even by the standards of a high-school player in 1951. He dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, but the Fighting Irish rejected him because he did not appear likely to gain any weight. The University of Pittsburgh offered
Unitas a scholarship, yet he failed the entrance exam, and this left only the University of Louisville, which gave him a scholarship. In his years at Louisville (1951-55), he remained in the shadows, but he did manage to gain 56 pounds and grow two inches.
In 1954, at the beginning of his senior year, Unitas married long-time girlfriend Dorothy Jean Hoelle, with whom he would eventually have five children. After graduation, his hometown Steelers picked him on the ninth round of the college draft, only to drop him before he even played in an exhibition game.
Disappointed but far from ready to give up, Unitas moved his family to Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he worked on a construction crew and played quarterback for the Bloomfield Rams. The Rams played on fields that were often strewn with litter, and for his troubles, Unitas earned just six dollars per game. Still, his efforts were not in vain: an admiring fan noticed his talents, and mentioned him to a scout for the Baltimore Colts.
First Years with the Colts
The Colts gave Unitas a tryout, and were impressed enough to sign him as a backup to quarterback George Shaw. Then, in a virtual repeat of the circumstances that had put him in the quarterback position for his high-school team, Shaw broke his leg in the fourth game of the 1956-57 season, and suddenly Unitas was moved front and center.
Even then, it was not immediately apparent that one of the most legendary careers in the history of the NFL (National Football League) had just been launched: Unitas's first pass as Baltimore quarterback was intercepted. However, he managed to finish the season with an impressive pass completion percentage of 55.6. In 1957, he led the NFL in touchdown passes and passing yardage, and by 1958, Baltimore's No. 19 was recognized as the best quarterback in the NFL.
A History-Making Game
On December 28, 1958, the Colts faced the New York Giants in the NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium. This was the first football game in history to go into overtime, and—of perhaps even greater importance—the first football game broadcast to a national audience. The mythical quality of that event can be glimpsed in the fact that on the field that day were 12 future NFL Hall of Fame players, including Unitas and Frank Gifford, with three more Hall of Famers on the sidelines coaching.
Though suffering from three broken ribs, Unitas took to the field to lead his team. Near the end of the fourth quarter, the Giants were leading 17-14, with five of their points scored by another figure destined for national prominence, Pat Summerall. Then Unitas did something almost inconceivable: in the space of less than 90 seconds, he managed to complete seven passes, moving the Colts forward and setting up Steve Myhra for a game-tying field goal with just seven seconds remaining.
According to old league rules, the game would have ended with a tie, but as the fans discovered on that day in 1958, overtime—with its promise of a single victor, no longer how much struggle it took—added a great deal more excitement to the game. In the course of 13 plays, Unitas led his team forward by 80 yards, putting Alan Ameche in place for the touchdown that won the game 23-17. Not surprisingly, Unitas was named the championship's most valuable player (MVP).
|1933||Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on May 7|
|1951||Graduates from St. Justin's High School, for which he played quarterback and earned a spot on Pittsburgh's All-Catholic High School team|
|1951||After being rejected by Notre Dame, takes scholarship at the University of Louisville|
|1954||Marries long-time girlfriend Dorothy Jean Hoelle, with whom he eventually has five children|
|1955||Graduates from University of Louisville, chosen by Pittsburgh Steelers on ninth round, but dropped before playing a single game|
|1956||After a year spent working construction and playing semiprofessional ball, is signed by Baltimore Colts as backup to quarterback George Shaw; later becomes Baltimore's lead quarterback after Shaw breaks his leg|
|1957||Leads the league in touchdown passes and passing yardage|
|1958||On December 28, leads the Colts to overtime victory against the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game. This, the first nationally televised game and the first to make use of the new overtime rule, is often considered the greatest single game in the history of football|
|1959||Completes the season at head of league in passing yardage and completions, and again leads the Colts to victory over the Giants in the NFL Championship|
|1964||Colts lose to Cleveland Browns in NFL Championship Game|
|1966||Breaks season records for passes thrown for touchdowns, and for yards gained|
|1968||After tearing a muscle in his right arm, has to sit out most of the season, including the Colts' victory in NFL Championship|
|1969||Despite his heroic showing in Superbowl III against the New York Jets, the Colts lose this historic game|
|1971||Begins to develop long-term arm problems, and tears Achilles tendon|
|1974||After being traded to the San Diego Chargers, plays one season as backup quarterback before retiring|
|2002||Dies of a heart attack in Baltimore on September 11|
Awards and Accomplishments
|At the time of his retirement, Unitas held the following records: greatest number of yards gained for passes thrown in a career (40,239); most sea-sons passing for more than 3,000 yards (3); most games passing for 300 yards or more (27); most touchdowns thrown (290); highest post-season pass completion percentage (62.9%); and most yards gained passing during championship play (1,177).|
|1957||Jim Thorpe Trophy; NFL Most Valuable Player Award; All-Pro Quarterback|
|1958||NFL Championship Game Most Valuable Player Award|
|1959||Bert Bell Award; NFL Most Valuable Player Award; NFL Championship Game Most Valuable Player Award; All-Pro Quarterback|
|1964||Bell Trophy; NFL Most Valuable Player Award; All-Pro Quarterback|
|1967||Jim Thorpe Trophy; Bell Trophy; NFL Most Valuable Player Award; All-Pro Quarterback|
|1969||Named Greatest Quarterback in History at NFL 50th Anniversary|
|1970||NFL Man of the Year Award|
|1979||Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame|
|1994||Named to NFL 75th Anniversary Team|
A national audience estimated as high as 50 million watched this thrilling game, and thereafter the marriage of television and football was sealed. It is easy to see the importance of the game in retrospect, but at least one person recognized it on that day: bursting out of his box at the sidelines, football commissioner Bert Bell shouted, "This is the greatest day in the history of professional football!"
An Unlikely Hero
By then, Unitas's reputation as "the Golden Arm" was sealed, and along the way he gained other epithets, including "Mr. Quarterback" and "Johnny U." Still, he seemed an unlikely hero. Teammate Alex Hawkins, who many years later recalled his first encounter with the new quarterback, described him thus in Sports Ilustrated : "Here was a total mystery. [Unitas] was from Pennsylvania, but he looked so much like a Mississippi farmhand that I looked around for a mule. He had stooped shoulders, a chicken breast, thin bowed legs, and long dangling arms with crooked, mangled fingers." And though today the name Johnny Unitas could not sound more perfect for a star quarterback, at the time it seemed embarrassingly ethnic in a sport that had theretofore been dominated by western Europeans.
True to his hardworking immigrant heritage, Unitas developed a reputation for his ability to withstand pain, as exemplified by the injured quarterback's performance in the 1958 championship game. Speaking to Sports Illustrated, Merlin Olsen later said of Unitas, against whom he played for the Los Angeles Rams, "I often heard that sometimes he'd hold the ball one count longer than he had to just so he could take the hit and laugh in your face." When Unitas retired, he wore the crooked index finger on his passing hand as a badge of honor.
Soldiering on Through the Pain
During the 1958-59 season, Unitas led the NFL in passing yardage and completions and won the Bert Bell Award. His team again trounced the Giants in the championship game, this time by a larger margin of 31-16, and Unitas once again became the championship MVP. During the next few years, the team's performance slumped, but Unitas' did not, and he continued to lead the league in yardage and completions.
The Colts returned to the championships to face the Cleveland Browns in 1964 and lost, but Unitas remained as strong a performer as ever. During the 1965-66 season, he broke season records for passes thrown for touchdowns and yards gained, but in 1967-68 he tore a muscle in his right elbow. This time, even "the Golden Arm" could not simply swallow the pain and soldier on, and he had to sit out for most of the season.
Another Historic Game
The Colts won the 1968 NFL Championship without Unitas, but he returned in the following season, and helped lead the team into Superbowl III against Joe Namath and the New York Jets. Torn ligaments in his throwing arm kept Unitas out of the game until the fourth quarter, and though the injured veteran performed heroically, with 11 of 24 passes completed for 110 yards, this was not enough to save the Colts from a 16-7 loss to the Jets.
Marking the emergence of the American Football League (AFL) as a rival of the NFL, Superbowl III was a match of almost as great historic importance as the championship game 11 years earlier, and indeed, many fans called this "the greatest game ever." Later, Unitas—never known to mince words when it came to talking about coaches—said that the blame for that loss fell on Baltimore coach Don Shula . According to Sports Illustrated, it was Unitas' contention that Shula should have sent him in during the second quarter instead of the fourth.
In any case, it was Unitas and not Namath who gained recognition as the Greatest Quarterback in History at the NFL's 50th Anniversary in 1969. A quarter century later, he would be among just four quarterbacks (the others were Otto Graham, Sammy Baugh , and Joe Montana ) on the NFL 75th Anniversary Team.
Though he would continue to play until 1973, Unitas had his last great season in 1969-70. During that time, he completed 166 of 221 pass attempts, gaining 2,213 yards and 14 touchdowns, and he finished out the season by earning the NFL Man of the Year Award. The Colts even went to Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys, but a bruised rib in the middle of the second quarter took Unitas out of the game.
Related Biography: Football Player George Shaw
Though Johnny Unitas went on to become a legend, and George Shaw is hardly remembered today, things looked very different in 1955. From the University of Oregon, Shaw was that year's number-one NFL draft pick. Unitas, on the other hand, came in on the ninth round, and became 102nd overall when the Steelers finally picked him up.
The Steelers dropped Unitas before his first exhibition game, claiming that he was not intelligent enough to be a quarterback. Shaw, on the other hand, was a golden boy, and even had a good Anglo-Saxon name. Chosen by the Colts on January 27, 1955, he seemed destined for immortality even as Unitas was destined for obscurity.
Even when the Colts signed Unitas in 1956, it was only as a backup to Shaw. Then, just four games into the 1956-57 season, Shaw broke his leg, and Unitas came in to replace him. Thereafter, the course was set, with Unitas bound for superstardom, and Shaw for the status of a footnote to football history.
After his recovery, Shaw went back to the Colts, only now he was the backup quarterback, and with Unitas' stoicism in the face of injury, he had few opportunities to play. He stayed with the Colts until 1958, when they traded him to the New York Giants. By this point, Shaw's career was already half over, and after two years with the Giants, he spent a year apiece with the Minnesota Vikings and the Detroit Lions before leaving the NFL in 1962. In his eight-year career, he gained 5,829 passing yards—just over a fifth of Unitas's record for 18 years.
The early 1970s were not a good time for Unitas. Long-term arm problems appeared in 1971, the same year in which he tore his Achilles tendon. In 1973, he divorced Dorothy after nearly two decades of marriage, and within a scandalously short time, he married Sandra Lemon. (He would remain with Sandra, by whom he fathered a child, until his death in 2002.) In 1973 he also saw the end of another long-term relationship, when the Colts traded him to the San Diego Chargers. Unitas
spent a year as backup quarterback for San Diego before retiring.
With his thrifty, hardworking, immigrant background, Unitas had long had an interest in business, and after retirement, he launched a second career as an entrepreneur. First he opened a Baltimore restaurant called the Golden Arm, then he became involved in Florida real estate. He served as spokesman for several companies, including manufacturers, a trucker, and a mortgage firm called First Fidelity Financial Services. This last involvement would prove troublesome to Unitas in the mid-1980s, when the company's founder was convicted of fraud, and Unitas himself became the target of a lawsuit for his endorsement of the company.
Though retired from the NFL, Unitas remained active in the world of football. Beginning in 1974, he spent five seasons in the CBS broadcast booth as a commentator, during which time he gained a reputation—as he had long before on the field—for candor and plainspokenness. In 1979, Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
In the last decade of his life, Unitas was chairman of Unitas Management Corporation, a sports management firm, and worked as vice president of sales for National Circuits, a computer electronics firm. He was also heavily involved in providing opportunities for promising young talents through his Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation. Just 69 years old, Unitas died on a heart attack in Baltimore on September 11, 2002.
Calling His Own Plays
The sheer numbers Unitas achieved in his career are impressive, and in some cases even staggering. His lifetime completion percentage of over 55%, while extremely good, is not the greatest ever, but in light of the vast number of passes this represents—5,186, with 2,830 completions—this in itself is a stunning statistic. So, too, is the number of yards these passes gained for the Colts: 40,239, an NFL record at the time.
Unitas also achieved a number of other distinctions that were NFL records at the time of his retirement: most seasons passing for more than 3,000 yards (3); most games passing for 300 yards or more (27); most touchdowns thrown (290); highest post-season pass completion percentage (62.9%); and most yards gained passing during championship play (1,177).
Among the greatest of modern football's founding fathers, Unitas's career marked a high point between that of such early pioneers as Red Grange and the advent of the "hot shot," exemplified by Namath. In a world that has come to be characterized, all too often, by prima donnas, Unitas was as no-nonsense as his hairstyle, and he excelled at calling his own plays, something modern quarterbacks cannot do. The game has become too complicated today for any one quarterback to call all his own plays, and ironically, Unitas, by helping to inaugurate the modern era with that historic game in 1958, paved the way for the more complex game that came into being.
SELECTED WRITINGS BY UNITAS:
(With Ed Fitzgerald) Pro Quarterback, My Own Story, Simon and Schuster, 1965.
|BAL: Baltimore Colts; SDG: San Diego Chargers.|
(With Harold Rosenthal) Playing Pro Football to Win, Doubleday, 1968.
Gildea, William. When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore: A Father and a Son, a Team and a Time. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins, 1996.
King, Peter. Greatest Quarterbacks. Des Moines, IA: Nelson, 1961.
Shapiro, Milton J. The Pro Quarterbacks. New York: J. Messner, 1971.
Unitas, Johnny and Ed Fitzgerald. Pro Quarterback, My Own Story. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1965.
Unitas, Johnny and Harold Rosenthal. Playing Pro Football to Win. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Deford, Frank. "The Best There Ever Was: For the Author—a Baltimore Native and Future Sportswriter—the Colts' Quarterback Was More Than a Boyhood Hero. He Was an Inspiration for the Entire City." Sports Illustrated 97 (September 23, 2002): 58.
King, Peter. "Field General: Mass Substitutions, Sophisticated Defenses and the Pressure to Win Add up to One Conclusion—We'll Never See Another Johnny U." Sports Illustrated 97 (September 23, 2002): 71.
Zimmerman, Paul. "Revolutionaries." Sports Illustrated 89 (August 17, 1998): 78-85.
Zimmerman, Paul. "Talking Football: In an Interview More Than Two Decades After His Last Game, the Old Pro Showed the Passion of an All-Pro Still in His Prime." Sports Illustrated 97 (September 23, 2002): 66.
"Al's NFL Football Videos." http://www.nfl-footballvideos.com/1958_nfl_championship.htm (November 20, 2002).
Johnny Unitas.com. http://www.johnnyunitas.com (November 20, 2002).
The Johnny Unitas Web Site. http://www.cmgww.com/football/unitas/index.html (November 20, 2002).
Levinson, Barry. "Baltimore Always Raven Mad for Pro Football." ESPN. http://espn.go.com/page2/s/levinson/010 (November 20, 2002).
Sketch by Judson Knight
Known as "The Golden Arm," Johnny Unitas (born 1933) is considered to be one of the best quarter backs to ever play in the National Football League (NFL). As a member of the Baltimore Colts, he played in what is arguably the greatest game in NFL history. In 1958, Unitas led his team to a championship in the first overtime and first nationally-televised game in the NFL.
John Constantine Unitas was born on May 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He was the third of fourth children born to Leon and Helen Unitas, who were of Lithuanian descent. Leon Unitas had a small business delivering coal, but he died when Unitas was five years old. Helen Unitas supported her family by taking over her late husband's business, as well as working odd jobs. She took accounting courses at night so she could also work as a bookkeeper. Despite his humble background, Unitas wanted to be a professional football player as early as age 12. He played quarterback for his school's team, St. Justin's High School. By the time he was a senior, Unitas was recognized locally for his talent and named to the All-Catholic High School team in Pittsburgh.
After graduating from St. Justin's in 1951, Unitas had a hard time finding a college team that was interested in him. He was considered small. Though he might have entered the University of Pittsburgh on scholarship, Unitas failed the entrance exam. He was offered a scholarship to the University of Louisville, which he took. At Louisville, Unitas toiled in obscurity, but he also grew two inches and gained 56 lbs. While a senior, Unitas married long-time girlfriend, Dorothy Jean Hoelle. They eventually had five children: Janice, John Constantine, Jr., Robert, Christopher, and Kenneth. Unitas graduated from the University of Louisville in 1955.
After graduation, Unitas's hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, picked him in the ninth round of the college draft. However, the team cut Unitas before he even appeared in an exhibition game. He did not give up on a professional career. Unitas moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey and found work on construction sites, primarily as a pile driver. He also played quarterback for the Bloomfield Rams for $6 per game, on fields that were often covered with litter. Of this stage in his career, Unitas told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, "They called it semipro football. Actually it was just sandlot, a bunch of guys knocking the hell out of each other on an oil-soaked field under the Bloomfield Bridge." Unitas's abilities on the field did not go unnoticed, however. A fan brought him to the attention of the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League.
Signed by the Baltimore Colts
Unitas was given a tryout by the Colts, and signed to a contract as a back-up to their quarterback, George Shaw. He got his break early in the 1956-57 season when Shaw broke his leg in the fourth game. The Colts tapped Unitas, and never looked back. His first game was not easy, however. Unitas threw his first pass for an interception. For the rest of the season, he had a pass completion percentage of 55.6. Beginning on December 9, 1956, through December 4, 1960, Unitas completed a minimum of one touchdown pass in every game he played. He began a similar streak in 1957 when he led the NFL in touchdown passes and passing yardage.
By 1958, Unitas was recognized as the best quarterback in the NFL. He was known for his ability to work well under pressure as well as for his accuracy, signal calling, and passing. To Unitas, the game was simple. He told Tex Maule in The Fireside Book of Football, "You have to gamble or die in this league. I don't know if you can call something controlled gambling, but that's how I look at my play calling. I'm a little guy, comparatively, that's why I gamble. It doesn't give those giants a chance to bury me." Unitas was known for his ferociousness on the field. Merlin Olsen, who played against him for the Los Angeles Rams, told Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, "I often heard that sometimes he'd hold the ball one count longer than he had to just so he could take the hit and laugh in your face."
Played in Greatest Game Ever
In 1958, the Colts made it to the NFL's championship game against the New York Giants. Unitas had to play injured, as he often did throughout his career. He had three broken ribs, and his protective gear weighed nine pounds. The Giants led towards the end of the game, 17-14 but Unitas got his team back into the game by completing seven passes in under 90 seconds so they could tie the score with a field goal before the end of regulation. A new league rule dictated that the game go into overtime. Previously all games, even those deciding a championship, could end with a tie. In overtime, Unitas led the Colts to victory by using unexpected plays to set up a touchdown in an 80-yard drive. The final score was Colts 23, Giants 17. It marked the Colts first championship.
The victory was spectacular. Many consider it to be the greatest game ever played in the NFL. Unitas was named the championship's most valuable player (MVP). Over 50 million fans watched the game. While it made Unitas a household name, he also believed it made professional football more widely known. Unitas told Dianne C. Witter of Arthritis Today, "Television was just catching on at the time. So that game was the first nationally televised pro football championship game. It was watched by more spectators than any other sporting event in the world up until that time. That game was the one that pushed the NFL into the prominence it has in America right now."
In the 1958-59 season, Unitas continued to dominate. He led the league in passing yardage and completions. He was named the league's most valuable player, winning the Bert Bell Award. In the season's championship game, the Colts again beat the Giants. This time the victory was more decisive, 31-16, and Unitas again was the championship's MVP. After this season, however, the Colts were not a great team for several years. Despite this, Unitas shined. During the 1959-60 season, for example, he led the NFL in passing yardage and completions. By 1962-63, the team had improved, and Unitas again led the NFL in passing yardage and completions. In 1963-64, his effort was rewarded with the Bell Trophy. While the Colts went on to win their conference championship, they lost to the Cleveland Browns in the NFL championship.
The late 1960s featured many of Unitas's last moments of greatness. In the 1965-66 season, he broke the NFL's season records for most passes thrown for touchdowns and most yards gained. The following season, Unitas won the Bell Trophy, and again led the NFL in completion percentage. He suffered a setback in the 1967-68 season when he tore a muscle in his right elbow, missing most of the season. The Colts went on to win the NFL championship in 1968 without him. Unitas returned the following season, to lead the Colts to Superbowl III. But he did not play because of torn ligaments in his throwing arm. The team lost to the New York Jets, 16-7. Despite such losses, Unitas continued to receive accolades. In 1969, the NFL's 50th anniversary, he was named the Greatest Quarterback of All Time. He was also named Associated Press Player of the Decade for the 1960s.
Unitas had his last great season in 1969-70. He was named the NFL's Man of the Year for completing 166 of his 221 pass attempts, for 2213 yards and 14 touchdowns. But Unitas also threw 18 interceptions. The Colts returned to the Super Bowl against the Dallas Cowboys. Unitas only played in the first quarter and a half because he suffered a bruised rib in the second quarter. Injury problems would plague him for the rest of his career. In 1971, Unitas began having arm problems. He tore his Achilles tendon in April 1971 while playing paddleball, which might have been the beginning of the end. Despite this, the Colts won the NFL championship in 1971. Unitas's difficulties extended off the field as well. He and his first wife divorced. Unitas was later remarried to Sandra, with whom he had another son, Francis Joseph.
Left the Game
Unitas played his last game as a Colt on December 3, 1972, after which he was benched and traded to the San Diego Chargers. There, Unitas was the backup quarterback. He retired at the end of the 1973 season, after 18 years in the NFL. Unitas only retired when he could no longer play. He told Dianne C. Witter of Arthritis Today, "When it's time to quit, it's time to quit." Unitas's career statistics were impressive. He threw 5186 passes, completing 2830, a percentage of over 55%. These passes were for 40,239 yards, at the time a NFL record. Unitas held other NFL records when he retired: most seasons passing for more than 3000 yards, (3); most games passing for 300 yards or more, (27); most touchdowns thrown, (290). He also held two post-season records: highest pass completion percentage, (62.9%); and most yards gained passing during championship play, (1177).
A Successful Businessman
Even before Unitas retired, he already had business interests. After retirement, he went into the restaurant business. He had a restaurant in Baltimore called The Golden Arm, which he sold in 1988. Unitas had business interests in central Florida as well, including a restaurant and real estate. Unitas also worked as a representative for several manufacturing companies and was a trucking company's spokesman. He did not forget football, nor did the game for get him. In 1974, he became a commentator for CBS, and was known for his honesty during his five-year tenure in the broadcast booth. In 1979, Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Unitas became a subject of controversy in the mid-1980s. He used his celebrity status to endorse many projects. One of them was a second mortgage company, First Fidelity Financial Services, Inc., of Hollywood, Florida. The company went bankrupt and its founder was convicted of fraud. Unitas was sued for endorsing a bad product. By 1998, he presided over two companies that bore his name. He was the chair of a sports management company named Unitas Management Corp. and gave out scholarships through Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation. He also worked as vice president of sales for a computer electronics firm, National Circuits, which he had bought with a partner in 1984.
But it was football that defined the Unitas legacy. Of his career, Paul Zimmerman of Sports Illustrated, wrote "He was the antithesis of the highly drafted, highly publicized young quarterback. He developed a swagger, a willingness to gamble. He showed that anyone with basic skills could beat the odds if he wanted to succeed badly enough and was willing to work."
Biographical Dictionary of American Sports: Football, edited by David L. Porter, Greenwood Press, 1987.
The Fireside Book of Pro Football, edited by Richard Whit-tingham, Fireside, 1989.
Harrington, Denis J., The Pro Football Hall of Fame: Players Coaches, Team Owners and League Officials, 1963-1991, McFarland and Company, Inc., 1991.
Hickok, Ralph, A Who's Who of Sports Champions: Their Stories and Records, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1995.
Sullivan, George, Pro Football: A Fully Illustrated Guide to America's Favorite Sport, Winchester Press, 1975.
Arthritis Today, September-October 1989, p. 30.
Newsweek, December 23, 1985, p. 65.
Sports Illustrated, August 17, 1998, p. 78. □
Johnny Unitas (yōōnīt´əs), 1933–2002, American football player, widely regarded as the greatest professional quarterback of all time; b. Pittsburgh. After playing for the Univ. of Louisville, Unitas was signed in 1955 by the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers but released before the season started, and subsequently played semiprofessional football before signing with the Baltimore Colts in 1956. By his retirement in 1974 (the last season with the San Diego Chargers) he held career records for attempted passes, completions, yards gained passing, touchdown passes, and other achievements. Although most marks were later eclipsed, he played in an era when the rules made passing more difficult. Noted for his ability to call plays from the line of scrimmage, Unitas was the Associated Press Player of the Decade (1960s), was the NFL's most valuable player in 1957, 1964, and 1967, and was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
See biography by L. Sahadi (2004).