Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas (1933-2002) is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. The NFL agrees, naming him the third greatest player and top quarterback of all time. In an era that was not conducive to the passing game, Unitas excelled and set records for career yards, attempts, completions, and touchdowns. He was also to throw for over 40,000 yards, even more impressive that regular seasons only had 12 games instead of today’s 16.
With this era’s passing rules made in favor of the quarterback and wide receiver, Unitas and his fellow teammates are moving further and further down statistical lists. However, one record that is still owned by Unitas is the record of 47 consecutive games played with at least one touchdown pass.
No one had ever heard of a two-minute offense until Unitas. Unitas called the majority of the offensive plays and broke apart defenses with surgical precision. Famous for the crewcut and hightops, enough cannot be said how much Unitas changed the game we see today. Yes, there are other great quarterbacks, who in some cases have better statistics than Unitas, but much of what they have done in their games, was created by Unitas. Unitas was complimented with many great players who elevated their game thanks to the leadership of Unitas. As Vince Lombardi said, “Unitas is the greatest football player that I have ever seen.” Bears QB Sid Luckman said, "He was better than me. Better than Baugh. Better than anyone."
Born in Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, Unitas was raised by his Lithuanian immigrant mother after his father passed away when he was 5. Unitas was offered a scholarship to play at Pitt, but he was unable to pass the entrance exam so he attended Louisville. Unitas didn’t play much his senior year as captain because of injuries, but his #16 is the only retired number at the school. Unitas Tower, a dormitory at the University of Louisville, is named for Johnny Unitas. A statue of Unitas sits in the north end zone of Louisville’s stadium where it is a tradition for each Cardinal player to touch the statue as he enters the field. Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award has been awarded to the top senior quarterback in college football and is presented in Louisville.
After college, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but was released before the season began. By then he was married with a child and worked construction in Pittsburgh to support his family. On the weekends, he played on a local semipro team called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game. In 1956 Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts and began his pro career.
Unitas and the Colts won the 1958 and 1959 NFL Championships, as well as Super Bowl V. Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973, and retired from football in 1974. Unitas threw his last touchdown on September 30, 1973 (Week 3) to Charger running back Bob Thomas in a 20-13 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. It was Thomas's only TD catch all year. In that same game, Unitas completed a pass to Mike Garrett that made Unitas the first player to throw for over 40,000 yards.
He finished his 18-year career with 2,830 completions in 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, with 253 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns.
After his playing days were finished, Unitas and his family lived in Baltimore. In 1979 Unitas was elected into the Hall of Fame. After the Colts franchise moved to Indianapolis, Unitas cut all ties to the relocated team. Other prominent old-time Colts followed his lead. He has asked that all memorabilia and statistics be removed from the Colts franchise history and remain only with the Baltimore incarnation. Unitas and most of the other Colts regard the Ravens as the true successors of the Baltimore Colts. Unitas donated his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore and is now on display in the Sports Museum at Camden Yards.
Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players suffered during the early years of football, before padding and other safety features designed to prevent such injuries had been invented. Unitas himself lost almost total use of his right hand, which had become mangled by the end of his playing career, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably disfigured from being repeatedly broken.
Unitas died on September 11, 2002, of a heart attack. A statue of Unitas was placed in front of the Ravens’ Stadium in “Unitas Plaza” (seen photo left). Large banners depicting Unitas in his Baltimore Colts heyday now flank the entrance to the stadium. Many loyal Baltimore football fans observe the ritual of rubbing the shoe of the statue of Unitas prior to entering the stadium for a Ravens home game. Towson University named its football and lacrosse complex in honor of Unitas. He was a major fund-raiser for the university, which his children attended.
19th Street in Ocean City, Maryland, is named Johnny Unitas Way with a blue street sign and the Colts' horseshoe logo. For the game following his death, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning requested to wear a pair of black cleats as a tribute to Johnny U, but was denied by the league and threatened with a fine. Manning decided not to wear them.
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I cribbed much of this information and text from Wikipedia’s Johnny Unitas page.
The best and only book you will ever have to read about Unitas, the Colts, and the NFL’s early years is aptly titled, “Johnny U,” by Bill Callahan. His fluid writing and tremendous detail surpasses all other writing about the Colts.
For much better writing and more information, checkout the sampling of active articles:
The official Johnny Unitas (and Baltimore Colts) memorabilia collection can be found at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.
Pro Football HOF: Unitas' 47-game consecutive touchdown streak (breaking down each TD).
Sports Illustrated: Best there ever was.
Sports Illustrated: Baltimore’s own Frank Deford’s Tremendous Unitas Obituary
Sports Illustrated photo gallery of Unitas' appearances on the cover.
Sports Illustrated: A collection of quotes from all-time NFL greats about Unitas.
Sports Illustrated: Johnny Unitas' career by the numbers.
Sports Illustrated: Johnny Unitas' statistics through the years.
An online petition to rename Ravens Stadium in honor of Johnny Unitas