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.

Deaths this week:

May 10, 1963 - Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb; Defensive Tackle (Rams/Colts/Steelers) 1953 – 1962
                            2-time First-Team All-Pro; 3-time Pro Bowler; Hall of Fame finalist in 1970 and 1977

Lipscomb was a modern style defensive tackle playing in a time when the players were smaller in stature. At 6’ 6” and close to 300 pounds he was fast, could cover the field sideline-to-sideline and dominated the line of scrimmage as a pass rusher. He was discovered after he had enlisted in the marines in 1949 instead of trying to get into college. The public relations director for the Rams scouted Lipscomb while he was stationed at Camp Pendleton, located south of Los Angeles. Pete Rozelle, the public relations director, signed him for the Rams in 1953.

He had his greatest years with the Baltimore Colts from 1956 to 1960, playing a major role on their 1958 and 1959 championship teams. He earned First-team All-Pro honors at defensive tackle in both seasons. He made his third Pro Bowl after the 1962 season, which turned out to be his last. Lipscomb went back to a friend’s apartment after a night on the town and, according to the medical examiner, took an injection of heroin. He died before the ambulance could get him to the hospital at the age of 31.

May 11, 1986 - Fritz Pollard; Tailback (Akron Pros /Hammond Pros/Providence Steam Roller) 1920-1926
                                                    1-time First-Team All-Pro; Inducted Into the Hall of Fame in 2005

Pollard was a halfback at Brown University and led them to a Rose Bowl appearance in 1915. Along with a player named Bobby Marshall, they became first two African-American players in the newly formed American Professional Football Association (two years later renamed the National Football League).

He was known as an exciting and elusive runner and led Akron to an 8-0-3 record in 1920 to win the new league’s first championship. In 1921 he beat Art Shell of the Raiders by 68-years, and the rest of professional sports by decades, when he became co-head coach for Akron. He also was the head coach for the Hammond Pros in 1925.

After the 1926 season, Pollard along with the nine other African-American players were banned from the league as the NFL segregated. Pollard spent time organizing semi-pro teams that played in the Midwest and on the west coast but the depression brought that to an end. He went into business and also spent many years in an attempt to convince the NFL to overturn the color ban. The league didn’t reintegrate until 1946 when the Cleveland Rams, as part of their agreement to move to the team to Los Angeles and play in the L.A. Coliseum, signed running back Kenny Washington and his college teammate Woody Strode. 

Today, the Fritz Pollard foundation works with the NFL to promote diversity and equality in coaching, front office and scouting staffs. More information about the organization and its mission can be found at

Notable birthdays this week:

May 8, 1930–Doug Atkins; Defensive End (Browns/Bears/Saints) 1953–1969; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                                 8-time Pro Bowler; Inducted Into the Hall of Fame in 1982
May 8, 1957–Bill Cowher; Linebacker (Browns/Eagles) 1980–1984
                                                Head Coach (Steelers) 1992–2006; 9 Division Championships;
                                                2 Conference Championships;1 Super Bowl Win
May 8, 1959–Ronnie Lott; Safety (49ers/Raiders/Jets) 1981–1994; 6-time First-Team All-Pro; 10-time Pro Bowler;
                                                Inducted Into the Hall of Fame in 2000
May 11, 1989–Cam Newton; Quarterback (Panthers) 2011–2011; 2010 Heisman Trophy Winner;
                                                     2011 NFL Rookie of the Year

The rest of this week’s birthdays:

May 7
1930–Babe Parilli; Quarterback (Packers/Browns/Raiders/Patriots/Jets) 1952–1969;
                                   1-time First-Team All-Pro; 3-time Pro Bowler
1936–Bobby Joe Green; Punter (Steelers/Bears) 1960–1973; 1-time Pro Bowler
1946–Marv Hubbard; Running Back (Raiders/Lions) 1969–1977; 3-time Pro Bowler
1953–Pat McInally; Punter (Bengals) 1976–1985; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 1-time Pro Bowler
1964–Leslie O'Neal; Defensive End (Chargers/Rams/Chiefs) 1986–1999; 6-time Pro Bowler
1965–Reuben Davis; Defensive Tackle/Defensive End (Buccaneers/Cardinals/Chargers) 1988–1996
1984–Drew Stanton; Quarterback (Lions) 2008–2011
1984–Alex Smith; Quarterback (49ers) 2005–2011
1985–Corey Lynch; Safety (Bengals/Buccaneers) 2008–2011
1986–Craig Steltz; Safety (Bears) 2008–2011
1989–Earl Thomas; Safety (Seahawks) 2010–2011; 1-time Pro Bowler

May 8
1931–Bill Bishop; Defensive Tackle (Bears/Vikings) 1952–1961
1939–Keith Lincoln; Halfback/Fullback (Chargers/Bills) 1961–1968
1945–Bob Grim; Wide Receiver (Vikings/Giants/Bears) 1967–1977; 2-time First-Team All-Pro;
                               5-time Pro Bowler
1955–Joe Campbell; Safety (Bills/Vikings) 1977–1981            
1974–Korey Stringer; Tackle (Vikings) 1995–2000; 1-time Pro Bowler
1980–Jamaal Jackson; Center (Eagles) 2005–2011
1983–Lawrence Vickers; Fullback (Browns/Texans) 2006–2011
1983–Ryan Cook; Center (Vikings/Dolphins) 2006–2011
1985–Usama Young; Defensive Back (Saints/Browns)  2007–2011
1987–Felix Jones; Running Back (Cowboys) 2008–2011
1985–Jacob Hester; Running Back (Chargers) 2008–2011

May 9
1912–Lee Shaffer; Back (Giants) 1935–1945; 1-time Pro Bowler
1919–Merle Hapes; Fullback (Giants) 1942–1946
1923–John Cannady;Linebacker (Giants) 1947–1954            
1934–Jesse Whittenton; Cornerback (Rams/Packers) 1956–1964; 1-time First-Team All-Pro;
                                               2-time Pro Bowler
1937–Bob Jeter; Cornerback (Packers/Bears) 1963–1973
1965–Marc Logan; Running Back/Kick Returner (Bengals/Dolphins49ers/Redskins) 1987–1997
1977–Danny Clark; Linebacker (Jaguars/Raiders/Saints/Texans/Giants/Saints) 2000–2010
1985–Jake Long; Tackle (Dolphins) 2008–2011; 1-time First-Team All-Pro; 4-time Pro Bowler

May 10
1899–Curly Oden; Back (Providence Steam Roller) 1925–1932
1912–Russ Thompson; Tackle (Bears) 1936–1940
1924–George Young; Defensive End (Browns) 1946–1953; 2011 & 2012 Hall of Fame Semi-finalist
1930–Pat Summerall; Defensive End/Placekicker (Lions/Cardinals/Giants) 1952–1961
1945–Randy Rasmussen; Left Guard (Jets) 1967–1981
1953–Jim Zorn; Quarterback (Seahawks/Packers/Buccaneers) 1976–1987
                               Head Coach (Redskins) 2008–2009   
1969–Curtis Whitley; Center (Chargers/Panthers/Raiders) 1992–1997
1983–Jeremy Trueblood; Right Tackle (Buccaneers) 2006–2011
1989–Jabaal Sheard; Defensive End (Browns) 2011–2011

May 11
1897–Harry Robb; Back (Canton Bulldogs) 1921–1926; 1-time First-Team All-Pro
1937–Al Jamison; Left Tackle (Texans) 1960–1962; 3-time First-Team All-Pro; 2-time Pro Bowler
1962–Steve Bono; Quarterback (Vikings/Steelers/49ers/Chiefs/Packers/Rams/Panthers) 1985–1999;
                                   1-time Pro Bowler
1966–Chris Mohr; Punter (Buccaneers/Bills/Falcons) 1989–2004
1983–Matt Leinart; Quarterback (Cardinals/Texans) 2006–2011; 2004 Heisman Trophy Winner
1987–Justin King; Cornerback (Rams) 2009–2011
1988–Stephen Paea; Defensive Tackle (Bears) 2011–2011
1988–Jeremy Maclin; Wide Receiver (Eagles) 2009–2011

May 12
1949–Don McCauley; Running Back (Colts) 1971–1981
1956–Max Montoya; Guard (Bengals/Raiders) 1979–1994; 4-time Pro Bowler
1958–James Wilder; Running Back (Buccaneers) 1981–1990; 1-time Pro Bowler
1961–Perry Williams; Cornerback (Giants) 1984–1993
1967–Robert Blackmon; Safety (Seahawks/Colts) 1990–1998
1972–Jason Kyle; Linebacker (Seahawks/49ers/Panthers/Saints) 1995–2010
1975–Lawrence Phillips; Running Back (Rams/Dolphins/49ers) 1996–1999
1978–Chris Hovan; Defensive Tackle (Vikings/Buccaneers) 2000–2009
1979–Steve Smith; Wide Receiver (Panthers) 2001–2011; 2-time First-Team All-Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler
1979–Andre Carter; Defensive End (49ers/Patriots) 2001– 2011
1987–Mike Iupati; Guard (49ers) 2010–2011
1987–Tyson Alualu; Defensive Tackle (Defensive Tackle) 2010–2011
1989–Nick Bellore; Linebacker (Jets) 2011–2011

May 13
1936–Bob Kilcullen; Defensive End/Defensive Tackle (Bears) 1957–1966
1951–Guy Morriss; Center (Eagles/Patriots) 1973–1987
1970–Doug Evans; Cornerback (Packers/Panthers/Seahawks) 1993–2003
1971–Tom Nalen; Center (Broncos) 1994–2007; 2-time First-Team All-Pro; 5-time Pro Bowler
1971–Rob Fredrickson; Linebacker (Raiders/Lions/Cardinals) 1994–2002
1974–Albert Connell; Wide Receiver (Redskins/Saints) 1997–2001
1981–Shaun Phillips; Defensive End (Chargers) 2004–2011; 1-time Pro Bowler
1985–Brian De La Puente; Guard (Saints) 2011–2011