The Best There Was
In the annals of sports where in each particular one whether it is Basketball, Baseball or others there are those who are revered by their peers and sportswriters from across generations who bestow upon one individual as the greatest there was. In professional football it is only fitting that now during the current NFL season to look back at the one person who so many consider the "best there was." In the storied history of the NFL even by today's standards one individual stands alone to exemplify what sportsmanship, true grit and determination in spite of overwhelming odds rose above and for eighteen years reigned supreme as the best quarterback to have ever played the game. There are many who emphatically state Johnny Unitas was the best there was. Even today, there are those who feel the Johnny U could command any team, read the complex defense playbooks of today and literally take the whole game to a new level of excitement, skill and daring.
With his signature flat top hair cut Johnny Unitas ascended to pro footballs highest order. Few, if any, sports stories are more dramatic or more complete than the story of Johnny Unitas. He was, just after all a ninth-round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. Even though Unitas was cut before he even threw one pass in a game he was still determined to play. For the rest of the year Unitas substituted his construction job by playing semi-pro football for $6 a game. Back then players were called upon to play what is commonly known as Iron man football. That is to play both defense and offense positions. Johnny Unitas excelled at all. But, it was his passing ability that eventually caught the eye of other pro scouts.
It was after the 1955 season that the Baltimore Colts head coach Weeb Ewbank learned of an "outstanding prospect" on the Pittsburgh sandlots. Ewbank signed Johnny for $17,000 on a make the team basis. Programmed strictly as a backup, Unitas got his chance in the fourth game when the Colts’ starter was injured. And, they say the rest is history! Not so fast. Upon entering the game replacing the Colts injured quarterback Unitas’ first pass was intercepted for a touchdown but from after that moment he never looked back. For the next 18 seasons, "Johnny U'' ran up a ledger of game winning exploits that have remained the benchmark by which all other quarterbacks are measured. Many of his accomplishments have remained untouched for over fifty years. In all of NFL history there has never been the likes of another Johnny U. Sure, there were others like Bart Star, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, or today's Tom Brady. But, it was Johnny Unitas who put the NFL on the map and why the NFL is so popular today.
Without a doubt, it was his last-second heroics in the 1958 NFL title game, often called "the greatest game ever played," that turned Unitas into a household name and the legend began. That greatest game between the New York Giants, who with two minutes to play, were leading, 17-14, when the Colts started a last-gasp drive at their own 14. 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 the legend. When running back Buddy Young, stated about Unitas ability and tenacity; "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."
“Mr. Clutch”as he became known went coolly to work with seven straight passes that set up a game-tying field goal with seven seconds left. Unitas then engineered a textbook perfect 80-yard march to win the game in overtime. The game, played before a national television audience, gave Unitas his chance to demonstrate all of his marvelous attributes, confidence, courage, leadership, play calling genius, and passing skill all with-out the play book calling by today's coaches. Just think of a Johnny Unitas as the quarterback today. He once told Weeb Ewbank to sit back and relax and just enjoy the game. The confidence and determination displayed under intense pressure in a collision sport like football in the NFL just showcased Johnny Unitas true talents. As in any professional sport age does have it's way of slowing down one's once great ability and by 1974 Johnny Unitas had to leave the game he single handily brought to the nations living rooms. A household name where every aspiring football player especially young quarterbacks all tried to emulate. He always was rebounding from injuries which became a Unitas trademark. A typical incident occurred 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.
Unitas might have been overlooked as a young player, but he was always a forceful, confident leader. "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 persistent injuries finally caught up with him and in 1972 the Colts under new Coach Don Shula were forced to bench Unitas. The following January sold him to the San Diego Chargers, for whom he played only one 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 when the rest of the nation was remembering a national tragedy Unitas was working out at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium when he suffered a fatal heart attack and slipped quietly into history. He was 69. The best there was, was now gone.