Historical Markers
Johnny Unitas (1933-2002) Historical Marker
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Johnny Unitas (1933-2002)

Pittsburgh Region


Marker Location:
Arsenal Middle School Field, 40th and Butler Sts., Lawrenceville section, Pittsburgh

Dedication Date:
September 4, 2004

Behind the Marker

With his high-topped shoes and his flat-topped hair, Johnny Unitas made the kind of distinct impression that ran counter to his accomplishments. "Here was a total mystery," recalled one of his longtime Colts" teammates. "He was from Pennsylvania, but he looked so much like a Mississippi farmhand that I looked around for a mule. He had stooped shoulders, a chicken breast, thin bowed legs, and long dangling arms with crooked, mangled fingers."

Johnny Unitas in uniform kneeling
Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, circa 1960.
First impressions can be deceptive, though. And Unitas, the premier signal caller of his time, and classed with the best of any time, deceived the doubters at every level.

John Constantine Unitas was born in Pittsburgh, in 1935, and his story is an equal mix of legend and archetype. "(He) was an American original," observed Sports Illustrated's Frank Deford, "a piece of work like none other, excepting maybe Paul Bunyan and Horatio Alger." The third of four children, Unitas grew up in a family that was Lithuanian, Catholic, blue-collar, and poor. His father delivered coal, and when he died–when Johnny was just five–Johnny's mother not only took over the business, but added odd jobs to keep the family afloat.

Like so many boys from his social, ethnic, and geographic background, Unitas was transfixed by football; by twelve, he had announced he would play professionally one day. If his heart was willing, his body was not; Unitas was built like a pencil. Yet he made his high school squad as a back-up quarterback, and when the starter broke his ankle, Unitas seized the opportunity. As a senior, he made Pittsburgh's All-Catholic high school squad in 1951.

This should have been as far as his career would go. At a shade over six-feet tall, he still weighed less than 140 pounds. He dreamed of playing for Notre Dame, but the Irish deemed him too scrawny. The University of Pittsburgh showed interest, but Unitas flunked the entrance exam. When the University of Louisville, with its then third-rate program, offered a scholarship, Unitas headed for Kentucky to play college ball in obscurity. There, his most impressive achievement was growing two inches and gaining almost sixty pounds.

The Steelers picked him late in the 1954 draft, but cut him loose before the first exhibition game. By all rights, that should have been the end of it, but not for Unitas. As gritty as the game he played, he was determined to soldier on toward the destiny he imagined for himself. He took a construction job in the Bloomfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and quarterbacked the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams. The pay was lousy–only $6 a game–and the fields had more trash than grass on them, but what mattered to Unitas was that he was playing, and playing well; well enough, in fact, to draw interest from the Baltimore Colts. They signed him to back-up George Shaw, the first choice overall in the 1955 draft. When Shaw broke his leg in the fourth game of the 1956 campaign, fate opened another door for Unitas. He walked through and never looked back.

Actually, he did look back, right after his first pass, which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, a humiliation he quickly erased from his and everyone else's memories by completing 110 of his 198 attempts that year. By the next season, Unitas sat atop all NFL passers in yardage and touchdowns. By 1958, he was generally acknowledged as the premier signal caller in the league. A thrill to behold, he threw with the precision of a sniper, faked with the coolness of a con artist, led like a general, and ran a complex NFL offense–quarterbacks, in his day, called their own plays–with the intellectual rigor of a particle physicist. His will was unshakeable. Look up "toughness" in the dictionary and the definition might consist solely of Unitas's picture. Hall of Fame lineman and TV commentator Merlin Olson once said, "I heard that sometimes he'd hold the ball one count longer than he had to just so he could take the hit and laugh in your face." He thrived on pressure, once completing seven passes in just over a minute to snatch a rousing victory from certain defeat. Often injured, he seemed impervious to pain.

Despite three broken ribs, Unitas commanded the Colts to a stunning overtime victor–the first in league history–over the New York Giants in the dramatic 1958 championship showdown, still considered the greatest game ever played. With more than fifty million viewers tuned in, the excitement it generated took a hefty bite out of baseball's sporting supremacy. "This," pronounced commissioner markerBert Bell when the gun sounded, "is the greatest day in the history of professional football." Unitas's encore? En route to defending the championship in a rematch against the Giants the following year, he led the NFL in completions and passing yardage, winning the first of his three MVP awards.

Over the next decade, Unitas continued to pile up accolades and add to his legend, amassing statistics and records, including one–a touchdown pass in forty-seven consecutive games–that may never be broken. Yet, for all he achieved, it was the one that got away that always haunted him.

Football Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, circa 1970.
Right up to his death in 2002, Unitas insisted his heavily favored Colts lost Super Bowl III in 1968 to the upstart Jets because he was benched until the last quarter. Though Unitas had torn a muscle in this throwing arm and sat out much of the season, he emphasized his readiness to play, but Coach Don Shula wouldn't listen. With the Colts behind 16-0, Unitas finally came in, spurring a fourth-quarter comeback that fell short. Like the overtime victory against those other New Yorkers eleven years prior, this game also proved seminal in football history. First, the Jets win validated the agreement to merge the established NFL with the newer AFL by demonstrating an AFL team could more than hold its own against its older brothers. Beyond that, it signaled a changing of the guard in the game's personality and perception, as Joe Namath, a brash, white-shoed, shaggy-haired, fun-loving emblem of the 1960s, elbowed Unitas, the quiet, high-topped, close-cropped, hardscrabble emblem of the 1950s and football's blue-collar roots, out of the spotlight.

Still, Unitas held on, quarterbacking the Colts through 1972 before playing one swan-song season in San Diego. After retiring, he started a variety of businesses, endorsed several products, spent five seasons in the broadcast booth, and suffered a multitude of residual aches and pains from his playing career. He remained a beloved icon in Baltimore until his death.

In addition to his MVP awards, Unitas earned All-Pro honors several times, was named Player of the Decade for the 1960s, the Greatest Quarterback in History at the NFL's 50th anniversary celebration in 1969, and, along with four other quarterbacks, led the NFL's 75th anniversary team in 1994. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
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