Johnny Unitas

Born: May 7, 1933 (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
Alma Mater: Louisville
NCAA Championships: N/A
Seasons Active: 18 seasons
Teams: Baltimore Colts (1956-1972), San Diego Chargers (1973)
Position: Quarterback   Height: 6'1"   Weight: 194 lbs
Super Bowls: V, 3x NFL Championship (1958, 1959, 1968)
Super Bowl MVPs: N/A
MVPs: 3x (1959, 1964, 1967)
Pro Bowl Selections: 10x (1957-64, 1966, 1967)
All-Pro First Team: 5x (1958,1959, 1964, 1965, 1967)
Stats Leader: 4x Passing Yards Leader (1957, 1959, 1960, 1963), 4x Passing Touchdowns Leader (1956-60)
Hall of Fame Class: 1979

Recount the tale of a football player who rose from obscurity to become the greatest quarterback in NFL history, and a 21st century audience will assume you are referring to former sixth-round draft choice Tom Brady.

But football fans of an earlier generation, those with vivid memories of the crewcut passer with the black high-top shoes and stutter-step dropback, will counter with the saga of Johnny Unitas, a ninth-round draft choice who was released by his first team, his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers, before throwing a single pass, played semi pro football on the sandlots of Pittsburgh for $6 a game, then was given a second chance by the Baltimore Colts and on the 50th anniversary of the NFL was voted the greatest quarterback of all time.

“I admit I’m prejudiced,’’ the great Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford, a Baltimore native, wrote after Unitas died in 2002. “But the best quarterback ever? The best player? Let me put it this way: If there were one game scheduled, Earth versus the Klingons, with the fate of the universe on the line, any person with his wits about him would have Johnny U calling the signals in the huddle, up under the center, back in the pocket.’’

The case could be made that Johnny Unitas made a nation fall in love with pro football, his performance in the 1958 NFL championship game—Baltimore’s sudden-death victory over the New York Giants in Yankee Stadium that historians have dubbed the greatest game ever played—vaulting the NFL to a level of popularity that has only grown exponentially since.

With two minutes left and the Giants leading, 17-14, the Colts began a drive on their own 14 yard line. Unitas, who had played much of the season in a harness protecting three broken ribs, coolly took the Colts down the field, completing seven straight passes to set up a game-tying field goal with seven seconds left. Then in overtime, he engineered an 80-yard drive that culminated in Alan Ameche’s game-winning touchdown in sudden-death overtime, a tie-breaking procedure that NFL commissioner Bert Bell had just implemented for this game. The drama played out before a national TV audience of 45 million, the biggest ever at that time for an NFL game, giving Unitas an unprecedented platform to demonstrate, as his Hall of Fame biography states, “all of his marvelous attributes – confidence, courage, leadership, play calling genius, and passing skill.’’

All this from a player who had come out of the University of Louisville, as Deford wrote, “somewhere between obscurity and anonymity,” signed by the Colts to be a backup and whose first pass in the NFL was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Hardly a candidate for NFL immortality.

“Here was a total mystery,’’ Colts teammate Alex Hawkins once said.  “[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 yet Johnny U., his playing exploits dovetailing with an Everyman personality, became one of the most beloved athletes in Baltimore history, leading the Colts to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959 and a Super Bowl title in 1970. He played 17 seasons for the Colts before a final season with the San Diego Chargers in 1974.

He became the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards in his career and when he retired after the 1973 season he held 22 NFL records, among them marks for most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing, most touchdown passes and most seasons leading the league in TD passes.

He completed 2,830 of 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. He completed at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games, a record that stood until Drew Brees broke it in 2012.

Unitas was a first- or second-team All-NFL choice eight years, selected NFL Player of the Year three times, and named to 10 Pro Bowls. He was inducted into the football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Unitas, who was of Lithuanian descent, was born in a working class section of Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, the third of four children. His father, Leon, ran a small coal delivery business but died when Johnny was 5. His mother, Helen took over the business, and Johnny starred at quarterback for St. Justin’s High, an All-Catholic High School selection as a senior. But because of his size—he stood 6 feet tall but weighed less than 140 pounds—he was lightly recruited, failed the entrance exam at the University of Pittsburgh and eventually accepted a scholarship to Louisville.

His humility was one of the many qualities that endeared him to Colts fans.

“I came into the league without any fuss,’’ he said. “I’d just as soon leave it that way. There’s no difference I can see in retiring from pro football or quitting a job at the Pennsy Railroad. I did something I wanted to do and went as far as I could go.’’

Unitas died of a heart attack at age 69  in 2002. Over 2,000 mourners attended his funeral mass in north Baltimore.

“Unitas epitomized football, the enduring values of toughness and competition, and he epitomized this community and America,” said former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue.

Raymond Berry, one of Unitas’ favorite targets and among a host of former teammates in attendance, spoke of Unitas’ leadership.

“You elevated all of us to unreachable levels, whether on the field or in the stands. You made the impossible possible,” Berry said.

At the conclusion of the mass, a small plane flew overhead, towing a banner reading “Unitas We Stand,” a message seen time and again during Unitas’ playing career in Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

“The great thing about Johnny Unitas? He never passed anybody by. … He gave the city hope,” said former Baltimore mayor and Maryland governor William Donald Schaefer. “I guess you could say everybody knew him as a great football player. Today we heard about him as a great father, all the things he did for his family…He never passed up a kid for an autograph. 

“We’ll miss him.”