Unitas led Colts to win in NFL's greatest game

Updated: August 20, 2004, 1:05 PM ET
By Larry Schwartz | Special to ESPN.com

Signature Game

Dec. 28, 1958 - Two history-making drives turned Johnny Unitas into a legend at 25 and helped transform pro football into the most popular television sport of the latter half of the 20th century. And he accomplished this in the House That Ruth Built, no less. In the nationally televised NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium, the Colts trailed the New York Giants 17-14 when they regained possession on their own 14 with 1:56 left in the fourth quarter. After two incompletions, Unitas hit Lenny Moore for 11 yards and a first down at the 25.

After misfiring on a bomb, he coolly connected three consecutive times to his favorite receiver, Raymond Berry. A 25-yard completion put the ball at midfield before strikes of 15 and 22 yards advanced the Giants 13. Steve Myhra's 20-yard game-tying field goal with seven seconds left forced the first overtime in NFL history.

Unitas led the Colts to NFL titles in 1958 and 1959.
After the Giants punted on their first possession, Unitas continued to excel. Taking over on his own 20, he twice completed third-and-long passes to keep the drive going. When he saw Giants middle linebacker Sam Huff move over to help out on Berry, he audibled to fullback Alan Ameche, who ran 22 yards up the middle to the Giants' 20. Two more completions from Unitas (26-of-40 for 349 yards) brought the ball to the one.

Finally, on the 13th play of the drive, Ameche bulled over from the one to give the Colts a 23-17 victory.

Odds 'n' Ends

  • As a sophomore at Louisville in 1952, Unitas had probably his best game, completing 17-of-22 passes with three touchdowns in beating Florida State 41-14.

  • Late in 1955, while playing in the semipro Greater Pittsburgh League, the Colts received a letter from a fan urging them to look at Unitas. Coach Weeb Ewbank did, and Unitas was signed in 1956.

  • After winning that 1958 NFL championship game, Unitas turned down $750 in fees for TV appearances scheduled for that night and the following morning so he could be with the team on the trip back to Baltimore.

  • He is the only quarterback to lead the NFL in touchdown passes four straight seasons (1957-60).

  • In the Colts' 16-7 loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III in January 1969, Unitas, who had been sidelined most of the season with a chronic elbow injury, did not enter the game until late in the third quarter with Baltimore trailing 13-0.

  • No NFL quarterback has ever approached Unitas' record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games. The second longest streak is 30, by Miami's Dan Marino (1985-87).

  • Unitas threw four touchdown passes in a game 17 times.

  • "You don't arrive as a quarterback," Unitas said, "until you can tell the coach to go to hell."

  • In a poll conducted by the NFL in 1969, Unitas was named the league's greatest player of its first 50 years.

  • In June 1972, Unitas divorced Dorothy, his wife of 18 years, and an hour later married his second wife, Sandy Lemon.

  • Unitas, at 39, was sold to the San Diego Chargers for $150,000 on Jan. 22, 1973. He received $250,000, double his Colts' salary. He only played five games for the Chargers, was 1-3 as a starter and completed just 34-of-76 passes for 471 yards and three touchdowns with seven interceptions.

  • Unitas tried his hand as a color analyst on NFL games, but was fired by CBS because he was bland.

  • Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 28, 1979.

  • Business life after football was not as successful for Unitas, who incurred losses with bowling alleys in the 1960s, a Florida land deal in the 1970s, and a restaurant in the 1980s.

  • Because he handicapped pro games for a gambling publication, the NFL forced the Colts to end Unitas' special consultancy with the team in 1981. Unitas continued to pick games.

  • In 1991, Unitas filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. He was a producer of printed circuit boards for computers, cars and telecommunications equipment.

  • Unitas has had both knees replaced and in 1993 he needed coronary bypass surgery after suffering a near-fatal heart attack.

  • When asked what it was like to play with Unitas, tight end John Mackey said, "It's like being in the huddle with God."

  • ALSO SEE