Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Johnny Unitas

Timonium Maryland – Visited November 2010

The classic card shot
A young boy who is nuts about football will often fix on one player as his hero for life. For me, growing up in the Sixties, that player was Johnny Unitas. I don’t know what it was about him – he was moving rapidly past his prime and played for a team, the Baltimore Colts, that I knew little about. But Unitas was my man.

Oddly enough, by the time I began to follow pro football in the late Sixties, Johnny Unitas was a throwback, an oddity of sorts. He was still sporting his signature crew cut when guys like Joe Namath were going Hollywood and hippie. And the black high-top cleats were unmistakably Unitas. Then there was the uncool number – 19 – which made it seem like he was perpetual walk-on trying to prove himself. But nobody could mistake that drop back and quick release. Watching quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Tom Brady these days is akin to watching Unitas – field generals of limited raw athletic talent who think the game to another level, and take their teams with them to it.

I've got a feeling this was staged
Johnny Unitas was born in 1933 in Pittsburgh, the heart of the Western Pennsylvania ‘Cradle of Quarterbacks’ (think Lujack, Blanda, Namath, Kelly, Marino and Montana as well). He was first generation Lithuanian who lost his father when he was four and was raised in a blue collar home by his hardworking mother. Unitas played college ball at the University of Louisville, showing promise as a two way player but finishing with an undistinguished career for a mediocre program He was drafted in the late rounds by the Steelers but cut during camp, reportedly because the coach didn’t think he was smart enough to play at the pro level.

 The Unitas story gets folksy as he found work doing construction and played semi-pro football to keep himself prepared for another shot. He got it with Baltimore in 1956, who signed him as a back up, only to press him into action half way through the year due to an injury to the starter. Unitas never gave the position back.

For a bizarre experience check out
highlights of the 58 NFL Title Game
set to Survivor's Eye of the Tiger
Two years after becoming a starter for a perennial also ran team, Unitas led the Colts to the NFL championship in 1958. That championship game, a 23-17 victory over the New York Giants, was the first ever overtime game in NFL history, and remains the only NFL championship (including Super bowls) decided in overtime. Watched by a phenomenally large audience at the time of 45 million people, it is this game that is credited with putting pro football at the forefront of the professional sports world. Unitas was named MVP of the league that year, and followed that up with another championship and MVP award in 1959.

Throughout the Sixties Unitas remained at the top of his game winning two more MVP’s in that span. Increasingly limited by injuries and age, Unitas came in as a back-up to throw a touchdown in the Colt’s upset loss to the New York Jets and Joe Namath in the 1968 Super bowl. Two years later Unitas threw a touchdown in Super bowl V before being injured, and the Colts went on to beat the Cowboys for the championship.

Johnny U statue at Raven's Field in Baltimore

Johnny Unitas' career in Baltimore ended with a flourish in 1972 when, in a late season home game the Colts were winning handily, the fans started chanting ‘We want Unitas’. Knowing the quarterback would never go in the game just to please the crowd, the coach tricked him into thinking the starter was injured. Unitas went into the huddle, called a pass, and threw a long bomb for his last pass as a Baltimore legend.

At the height of his career Johnny Unitas set a record with 47 straight games throwing a touchdown pass. The next closest streak is 36 by Brett Favre. With due respect to Joe DiMaggio’s 56 game hitting streak, this may be the greatest individual record in team sports. When you consider that Unitas played in an era dominated by the running game, in entirely outdoor conditions, and that he was dependent on his receivers to score, this is a phenomenal accomplishment.

After retirement Johnny Unitas did broadcasting work and stayed in Baltimore. When the Colts were smuggled out town by Bob Irsay in 1984, Unitas cut his ties with the team in protest. Unitas welcomed the Ravens as the successors to the Colts and was an institution in Baltimore throughout his life. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack in the Baltimore suburbs in September 2002. At its 50th anniversary the NFL selected Johnny Unitas as its top player in its first five decades.

I visited the Unitas grave in Dulaney Valley Memorial Cemetery in Timonium, Maryland with my friend Joe Lee of Covenant Life Church. We were supposed to be meeting in Baltimore to talk about pastoral counseling strategies, but spent most of the time looking for dead people. My idea, not his.

No comments:

Post a Comment