Dropping Back In NFL History: Johnny Unitas And His Golden Arm

By Tom Pollin
May 09, 2012 9:05 am
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There may not be a long list of events in NFL history to make note of between the end of January and training camp season in July but each week brings the birthday of another NFL legend to read about and profile. Last week we profiled Eagles’ great Chuck Bednarik. This week is the birthday of a quarterback no one wanted to believe in who became one of the greatest of all time.

It’s time to steer the “Wayback Machine” towards early 1930’s Pittsburgh.

May 7, 1933–Johnny Unitas was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
One of the greatest quarterbacks ever to line up behind center spent years looking for a chance to show what he could do. By the time he was finished, the legends of the game recognized that they had witnessed the career of someone special. Vince Lombardi said, “Unitas is the greatest football player that I have ever seen.” Bears legend Sid Luckman, one of the greatest of all time in his own right said of Unitas, "He was better than me. Better than (Sammy) Baugh. Better than anyone."

Unitas first played quarterback in his sophomore year of high school when the starting quarterback broke his ankle. After graduation he tried for a scholarship at Notre Dame but, though he impressed during a tryout, they turned him down because of his size. He was very slight at 6’1” and 135 pounds. He received an offer from Pitt but couldn’t pass the entrance exam. In the end, his only other option was to accept a scholarship offer from Louisville for the 1951 football season.

Since the school wasn’t a member of the NCAA at the time, Unitas was able to play right away in his freshman season (freshmen were not allowed to play varsity sports at NCAA schools until 1972). Unitas was second string at the start of the season and watched he Cardinals start 1-3. While losing to St. Bonaventure 19-0 at halftime, coach Frank Camp decided to start him in the second half. Unitas completed 11 consecutive passes at one point and threw for three touchdowns to put Louisville in front 21-19 before they lost on a last second field goal. After that game he led Louisville to four straight victories to finish the season 5-4. Due to the team being undermanned in talent and a dispute between the school and the athletic department, Louisville struggled in Unitas’ last three seasons. His four year record in at Louisville was 12-22.

After college, he encountered the same problems that plagued him when he was looking for a college. Teams recognized his talent but looked at his size and didn’t see him as having a chance to succeed in the NFL. In the 9th round (102nd overall) of the 1955 Draft, he was selected by his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers. When he reported to camp he found himself behind starter Jim Finks (who later became one of the greatest team building general managers of all time), Ted Marchibroda (a head coach who was considered an offensive genius) and another rookie, Vic Eaton. Unitas never got a shot during training camp and was cut after the final exhibition game.

That fall, Unitas played for a Pittsburgh semi-pro team, the Bloomfield Rams. He worked as a pile-driver during the day and practiced with the team in the evenings. He made $6 a game while leading them to a league championship. In February of 1956, he was called by the Colts and invited in for a tryout. He tried out in May and the Colts signed him to back up starter George Shaw.

In week four of the 1956 season Shaw broke his leg in a game against the Chicago Bears and Unitas took over at quarterback. His first pass went for a touchdown, for the Bears when J.C. Caroline stepped up and made the interception in full stride. After the kickoff, he and the running back botched a hand-off that the Bears recovered and drove the other way for another touchdown. The Colts lost 58-27 but they didn't give up on him and he didn't give up on himself. By the end of that season Unitas was entrenched as the team's starting quarterback. In the final game, he began his streak of 47-straight games with a touchdown pass. That record still stands although Drew Brees is coming close with a current streak of 43-games entering the 2012 season.

In 1957, Unitas led the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes while leading the Colts to a 7-5 record, their first winning season in franchise history. In 1958 Unitas led the Colts all the way to the NFL Championship Game against the New York Giants. Before a national audience watching the game on NBC, in the final two minutes, he drove the team from the Colts' 14-yard line into field goal range to tie the game and send it into overtime. In overtime, he drove them 80-yards in 13-plays for the game winning touchdown. Since then, it's been called "The Greatest Game Ever Played", and began the rapid growth that help make the NFL what it is today.

Unitas played for the Colts until 1972 when he was traded to the San Diego Chargers for one more year. He retired after the 1973 season. After his retirement, Unitas continued to live in Baltimore and remained loyal to the Colts until 1984 when owner Robert Irsay moved the franchise to Indianapolis. Unitas and a number of other former Colts’ players cut all ties to the team in protest of the move. Once the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens most of those players lined up their loyalty with them. During home games, Unitas was often seen standing on the Ravens’ sidelines to watch the game and demonstrate his support. He made it a point to be there in week seven in 1996 when the Colts came to Baltimore to play the Ravens.

As he grew older Unitas began suffering health and physical problems that gradually worsened over time. An elbow injury began to affect him and combined with hand injuries he sustained as a player, became so bad that he could barely hold a pen in his hand to sign autographs. He also needed two artificial knees to be able to continue walking. Because of his physical problems, he spent a lot of time advocating on health issues that former NFL players had to endure. On September 11, 2002 Unitas was working out at a physical therapy center when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 69 years old.

At the time of his retirement he had become the first quarterback to throw for over 40,000-yards and held the career records for fourth quarter comebacks with 27 and game winning drives with 29. His No. 19 is retired by the Colts and his No. 16 is the only one retired by the University of Louisville. In the north end zone of their stadium, a statue of Unitas stands and is touched by each player as they come out to take the field. In 2010, Unitas was ranked No. 6 on the NFL’s Top 100 Players of all time list.


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By Tom Pollin
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