Unitas surprised them all

Updated: January 10, 2006, 5:40 PM ET
By Bob Carter | Special to ESPN.com

"A guy broke through the line, hit him, pushed his head in the ground. He called the same play, let the guy come through and broke his nose with the football. I said, "That's my hero,' " says Bubba Smith about Johnny Unitas on ESPN Classic's SportsCentury series.

Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas emerged as a superstar at the same time the NFL was developing as a TV sport.
Notre Dame thought Johnny Unitas was too small. The Pittsburgh Steelers thought he wasn't intelligent enough.

The Baltimore Colts got it right. Unitas, 6 feet and a mere 145 pounds in high school, became a nowhere-to-somewhere story, a backup who kept getting opportunities to succeed at every level. Give me a chance, the crew-cut quarterback would say, and I'll show you. He went from semi-pro dirt fields to stardom in the NFL.

And he did it quickly.

"The most important thing of all about Unitas," said Weeb Ewbank, his Colts coach, "is that he had a real hunger. This was a kid who wanted success and didn't have it so long that he wasn't about to waste it when it came."

Unitas led the Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and '59, helped them win Super Bowl V, was chosen to five all-league teams and was Player of the Year three times. He played in 10 Pro Bowls. He threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, an NFL record that began in his rookie year.

When he led Baltimore to a 23-17 overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship, a game often proclaimed as football's greatest, Unitas boosted the sport's popularity.

Sid Luckman, a fellow Pro Football Hall of Fame member, said Unitas was the best quarterback ever. "Better than me," he said, "better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone."

Unitas was born on May 7, 1933 and grew up in a working-class section of Pittsburgh. His father died when Johnny was five, and his Lithuanian-born mother Helen raised four children by herself, supporting them by working two jobs.

At St. Justin's, a small Catholic high school, Unitas played halfback and end until he replaced the injured starting quarterback early in his junior year. As a senior he drew some interest from colleges.

The Notre Dame backfield coach, though, said Unitas was too light. Indiana also passed on him. Pittsburgh offered him a scholarship, but Unitas failed the school's entrance exam.

He finally accepted a scholarship from Louisville, where as a freshman he became a starter in the sixth game and led the Cardinals to four wins. He gained 40 pounds in his first two college seasons, threw for 21 touchdowns and also played safety. Slowed by injuries and sub-par teams his junior and senior seasons, he finished his college career with 27 touchdown passes and 3,139 yards passing.

The Steelers drafted him in the ninth round in 1955, but they doubted he had the smarts to run a pro offense. They had four quarterbacks in camp, and Unitas played in none of the five exhibition games before being released. "Most of the time they acted like I wasn't there," he said. While working construction in Pittsburgh, he played quarterback and defensive back for the Bloomfield Rams, a local semipro team that played with old equipment on sandlot fields. Unitas, who had married during college and had a child, signed on for $6 a game.

The Colts offered Unitas $7,000 to sign early in 1956, and he joined them for their spring session. Ewbank liked what he saw, even Unitas' size - he had filled out to 6-1 and 190 pounds.

"He was a big boy, with good speed," Ewbank said. "Not dazzling speed, but good speed. And he was so very eager to learn."

Johnny Unitas
Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas delivered Baltimore its first NFL championship.
When starting quarterback George Shaw suffered a broken leg against the Chicago Bears in the season's fourth game, Unitas made a nervous debut. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then he botched a handoff on his next play, a fumble recovered by the Bears.

Unitas rebounded quickly from that 58-27 loss, leading the Colts to an upset of Green Bay and their first win over Cleveland. He threw nine touchdown passes that year, including one in the season finale that started his record 47-game streak. His 55.6-percent completion mark was a rookie record.

Setting up quickly in the pocket and with a knack for calling the right play, he threw for 2,550 yards and 24 touchdowns the next season, leading the Colts to a 7-5 record. The league's players voted him MVP.

Rebounding from injuries became a Unitas trademark. In 1958, when he led Baltimore to the Western Conference title, he was hit by the Packers' Johnny Symank in the sixth game and hospitalized with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Four games later, he led the Colts from a 27-7 halftime deficit to a 35-27 win over the San Francisco 49ers, a performance he rated higher than the season's celebrated title game.

That nationally televised championship game at Yankee Stadium was riveting. The Colts led 14-3 lead at halftime, then fell behind 17-14 in the fourth quarter. With two minutes remaining, they got the ball at their 14-yard line.

"I said to myself, 'Well, we've blown this ballgame,'" Colts receiver Raymond Berry said. "The goalposts at our end of the field looked a million miles away."

Unitas completed four passes for 73 yards, the last three to Berry for 62 yards, to set up a game-tying 20-yard field goal by Steve Myhra with seven seconds left. In overtime, Unitas directed the Colts on a drive that Sports Illustrated termed "13 plays to glory." Alan Ameche's one-yard touchdown run ended the NFL's first sudden-death finish.

Passing for 349 yards, the game solidified Unitas' reputation and sold many, including outstanding running back Buddy Young, on the quarterback's preeminence. "You know what convinced me?" Young said. "He'd get knocked on his fanny play after play, yet he'd be right up there at the spot where the referee was putting the ball down and then he'd be checking the clock and knowing how much yardage he needed."

Unitas might have been overlooked as a young player, but he was always a forceful, confident leader.

Unitas threw at least one TD pass in 47 consecutive games.
"Anything I do," he said, "I always have a reason for."

Even at the end of that championship game, he dismissed Ewbank's instructions to keep the ball on the ground. "We don't want an interception here," the coach reminded him during a timeout.

Two plays later, inside the 10, Unitas passed to Jim Mutscheller down to the one. Asked about the risk of an interception, Unitas said, "If I saw a danger of that, I would have thrown the ball out of bounds. When you know what you're doing, you're not intercepted."

Unitas threw for 32 touchdowns in 1959 and the Colts beat the Giants again in the title game. In the 31-16 victory, Unitas ran for the go-ahead touchdown and passed for 264 yards and two scores.

His 3,481 yards passing topped the NFL in 1963. The next season he was the league's MVP when he led the Colts to the NFL's best record at 12-2 and was first in yards per pass attempt (9.26). In winning another MVP in 1967, he had a league-high 58.5 completion percentage as he passed for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns in the Colts' 11-1-2 season.

After being hurt most of the 1968 season, Unitas returned and led the Colts on their only scoring drive in historic Super Bowl III, a 16-7 loss to the New York Jets. Two years later, in the Colts' 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, he threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to John Mackey before suffering an injury late in the first half.

The Colts benched Unitas in 1972 and the following January sold him to the San Diego Chargers, for whom he played one undistinguished season before retiring. In his 18-year career, Unitas threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns in 211 games.

What made Unitas special, Berry said, "was his uncanny instinct for calling the right play at the right time, his icy composure under fire, his fierce competitiveness, and his utter disregard for his own safety."

On Sept. 11, 2002, Unitas was working out at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium when he suffered a fatal heart attack. He was 69.

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