I didn’t know Johnny Unitas as a player. He retired from football in 1974. I don’t remember him because I was barely six-years-old at the time. But, you can’t love the game of football and not know Johnny Unitas the legend.
Johnny Unitas was born May 7, 1933. He grew up in Pittsburgh, but it was Baltimore where he first became famous. From 1956-1972, he served as the Baltimore Colts star quarterback. As his legend grew, the 6’1” 195-pound “Johnny U” also became known for his crew-cut and black high-top sneakers. He was poised, talented, confident, and had dogged determination. He was so confident, in fact, that he often called his own plays on the field. Former Colts teammate John Mackey once said that it was like “being on the field with God.”
Many say that Unitas was the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game. Funny, then, that he almost didn’t get the chance to play and prove his talent. His career as field general began as a sophomore at St. Justin’s High School when the starting quarterback broke his ankle. It was decided that Johnny could throw the ball well enough and was moved to the QB position with less than one week to learn the offense. He wanted to go to college to continue this sport that he loved and build a solid future for himself. His dream team, Notre Dame, was unwilling to take him because they were afraid that his six foot, 138-pound frame wouldn’t bulk up. He received an offer from the University of Louisville and accepted it. He made a solid reputation for himself while at Louisville (graduated in 1955) that got him picked in the ninth slot for the Pittsburgh Steelers in the draft of ‘55. Pittsburgh released him, though, saying that they had too many quarterbacks on the roster and the head coach at the time deemed Unitas “not intelligent enough to be a quarterback.”
Unfortunately for Johnny, the Steelers waited too long to release him and no other team could pick him up. So, he worked construction and played semi-pro football for the Bloomfield Rams. In February of 1956, the Baltimore Colts called Johnny and were very interested in the talents that he offered. Thus began a storied 17-year career that sets the bar for all quarterbacks that come after.
Among his many accomplishments with the Colts, Unitas is responsible for “the greatest football game ever played.” It was the 1958 championship match up against the New York Giants. With 90 seconds on the clock, he completed four passes to bring the Colts to the 20-yard line. The tied the game with a field goal. Then, Unitas set up an 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown in overtime. “…It became the first playoff ever to go to sudden death, and you can’t have much more drama than that,” he said.
Unitas retired in 1974 after one season with the San Diego Chargers. He left the sport with the following records and accomplishments:
• Most pass attempts (5,186)
• Most completions (2,830)
• Most total yards (40,239)
• Most touchdowns (290)
• Most 300-yard games (26)
• Most consecutive games throwing touchdown passes (47)
• Seasons with 3000 yards or more (3)
• Player of the Year in ’59, ’64, ‘67
• Three-time NFL MVP
• “Player of the Decade” for the 1960s
• Ten Pro-Bowl selections.
He was the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards and, in all; he left the game with 22 NFL records. He led the Colts to one Super Bowl Crown and three NFL championships. In 1959, in a celebration of the NFL’s 50th anniversary, Unitas was named the “Greatest Quarterback of All-Time.” Ten years later, in 1979, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His acceptance speech was selfless, as was he: “A man never gets to this station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed and prodded to do better. I want to be honest with you: The players I played with and the coaches I had … they are directly responsible for my being here. I want you all to remember that. I always will.”
He recently received another honor in 2000 when he was voted the “Greatest Player in the First 50 Years of Pro Football,” and named the quarterback for the NFL’s All-Time team.
Johnny Unitas died Wednesday, September 11 in Timonium, Maryland. He had been working out at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb when he suffered a heart attack. Doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate him, but were unsuccessful. He was 69. Unitas had suffered a previous heart attack in March 1993 which resulted in emergency triple-bypass surgery. He is survived by his wife, Sandra, and his children, John Jr., Kenneth, Robert, Christopher, Joe, Chad, Paige, and Janice.