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“Well, I’m going to play professional football.”
Francis Unitas and Helen Superfisky
“My father’s name was Leonard Unitas,” states the autobiography of Johnny Unitas, Pro Quarterback, published in 1965 by Grosset and Dunlap. The funny thing is, his father’s name was not Leonard. His brother’s name was. Reading the book in 1965, Cameron Snyder of the Baltimore Sun noticed how reminiscent many of the passages were of newspaper stories Snyder had written or read. Whole columns by John Steadman of the News-Post and Sunday American appeared to have been redrawn in the first person and incorporated into the narrative. “I always remember how surprised John Steadman, the sportswriter, was the morning of the championship game. . . .”
When next he saw Unitas, Snyder said dryly, “I got your book and I have only one question. Did you write it?”
“Hell,” Unitas said, “I didn’t even read it.”
His father’s name was Francis Joseph Unitas. Always Francis, never Frank (just as John was never Jack or even, as a boy, Johnny). When his mother died and his father could not cope, Francis was dispatched with two brothers, twins, to a Pittsburgh orphanage called the Toner Institute and Seraphic Home for Boys. (Two sisters and another brother were scattered elsewhere.) Both twins died in the orphanage, leaving Francis alone. The name of the one who died of influenza has been forgotten in time. The little boy who was run over by a train while trying to escape was named Adam.
At sixteen, the maximum age, Francis was sprung from the Toner Institute. Wrapping two shirts around an old baseball glove and waving good-bye to the Sisters of Divine Providence and the Capuchin Franciscan Fathers, he made for the coal country of West Virginia, hoping to pick up the trail of his lost siblings in a large Lithuanian community of miners. No relatives turned up then (one would, years later), but in an Old World enclave known as Century, Francis did make a significant find. She was a Lithuanian immigrant who worked in the company store and therefore, by necessity, could speak not only Lithuanian and English but also Russian and Polish. A self-taught piano player—a self-taught everything—she was the organist for Sunday Mass at the Catholic church. It seemed to Francis that there was nothing Helen Superfisky couldn’t do.
To Helen, Francis was equally remarkable. He was tall—right around six feet—gangly, but amazingly powerful, almost in the manner of a circus strongman. He had huge hands, bigger than Lennie’s in Of Mice and Men, busier than Wing Biddlebaum’s in Winesburg, Ohio. Francis liked to lift things just to prove he could do it, roadside boulders and even the back wheels of coal trucks. Despite a comically improper technique, he out-tossed all of the local shot-putters (a regional specialty) and could fling a rock practically out of sight. Combing his brown hair in a confident wave, he was a showy character in every way, an all-around performer who boxed like a lighter man and could be plugged into any position on the town baseball team. They married.
Not quickly but by hard increments, over ten sweaty years, Francis and Helen Unitas worked their way up to owning a small coal truck and establishing their own delivery business back in the Brookline section of Pittsburgh. Though coal furnaces abounded, it was the 1930s; profits were meager. But the entire country was toiling for the minimum. To be working at all was the main thing. They lived more than modestly in a one-bathroom house that was rather like a hive, buzzing as it did with a swarm of Superfiskys that included Helen’s parents, several layers of cousins and in-laws, and a great-uncle, Tony, who was stricken with silicosis (“miner’s asthma”). Hanging bedsheets for privacy, Francis, Helen, and all four of their children—Leonard, Millicent, John, and Shirley—slept together in the dining room.
Stood up by his helpers in the bitter September of 1938, Francis put in a long day doing his own job, dropping the black piles here and there all over town, and then a longer night doing theirs, assembling the chutes and shoveling the coal into basement bins. Working at breakneck speed, he took on the task as another exhibition of superhuman strength—an impossible race against daybreak—and won. But he caught pneumonia and died, technically of uremia, kidney failure. Francis Joseph Unitas wasn’t quite thirty-eight years old. John Constantine Unitas, born on the seventh of May 1933, was five.
“John was the apple of his dad’s eye,” said big brother Leonard without resentment. The unread autobiography wasn’t so wrong at that. In a way, Leonard was John’s father. Eleven years old when Francis died, Leonard was already as averse to melodrama and immune to sentimentality as John would grow up to be. For instance, Leonard could believe that one of his orphaned uncles was killed hopping a freight train, but he always wondered if the “escape” part of Adam’s story wasn’t embroidery. “There weren’t any railroad tracks,” Leonard said with twinkling eyes, “anywhere near the Toner Institute.” Sister Millie, three years younger than Leonard, three years older than John, didn’t care one way or the other. But the “children,” John and Shirley, never questioned the family’s heroic tragedy. It thrilled them and broke their hearts.
“I have pictures of us with Dad and the truck,” Shirley said, “but no recollections of him at all. I don’t even remember the sound of his voice. The only memories I have are little ones that John shared with me: like Dad flying up the stairs three steps at a time to make sure Mom wasn’t hurting John in the bath. I think there was a lot of my dad in John that we didn’t know or recognize, but Mom did.” He had those same big dukes. (Anyone who ever shook the hand of Johnny Unitas never forgot it.)
One year apart, John and Shirley were Jem and Scout. He called her Tootsie. The others laughed at how quiet he was. “He very seldom spoke,” according to Leonard. “Once in a while he’d come out with something.” But Shirley understood his silences. “John was always thinking,” she said. And blinking. Many who later huddled with him swore they could hear his eyeballs clicking as he double-checked his calculations. At ages ten and nine, John and Shirley were fused together permanently by forty-two plunges of a syringe. Shirley said, “John loved animals more than anything, you know. We always had a dog.” Tippy was killed in traffic. Skippy wasn’t nearly as adventurous. Weegee was another story entirely. The sweetest in the long line of mysteriously bred mutts that Leonard kept rescuing from the pound, Weegee was the only dog they ever had who could give the OK signal with his tail. Missing for three days, he came home wet, bedraggled, and rabid. As John and Shirley were washing him in a tin tub, Weegee changed personalities. Both kids were nipped on the face and nose.
Panting turned to growling turned to screaming. Summoned from work, Leonard was able to trap Weegee in the cellar. While nobody slept, the poor dog moaned all night and made toothpicks out of his side of the door. When Leonard opened it a crack in the morning, Weegee lay there exhausted, his face bathed in a white froth and his jaws dripping foam. The police strapped him into an ugly leather harness and took him out in a bag. Two days later, John and Shirley were called to Southside Hospital for rabies shots. The hardest part was sitting through a torturous school day before climbing onto the streetcar alone. All the way there and back, they held hands.
In the same room, each received twenty-one injections, first in the stomach, then in one buttock, then in the other, then in one arm, then in the other, then back in the stomach, and around again, and again and again. Did John cry? “Oh, God, no,” Shirley said. “I couldn’t either, in front of him.” On the return trip, as the streetcar approached their stop, John whispered the first full sentence of the day: “It’s only a needle, Toots.” He was Johnny Unitas at ten.
With Francis gone, Helen streamlined the family and dropped down a social notch to a two-bedroom house on unpaved William Street in Mount Washington. “The highlight of the year,” said a neighbor, Joe Chilleo, “was when the scrapers came up to scrape the street just before the election. We’d go out there and watch them. We thought it was wonderful.” Helen, Millie, and Shirley shared one of the bedrooms; Leonard, John, and Great-Uncle Tony the other. Although he could cough with Doc Holliday, Tony was good company. There still was only one bath. To Millie, it was “like living on the tip of a mountaintop.” From the porch of their yellow house, which looked orange at sunset, you could see the city, a few tall buildings at least, the Monongahela River, and the bridge where the streetcars crossed over. “The automobiles were just specks,” she said.
Until Leonard was old enough to drive the coal truck, men were hired to work under Helen’s supervision. They set no records for sobriety. The sisters at Saint Justin’s School, including a six-foot-three nun whom everybody called Big Red, pretended not to notice Leonard’s grogginess in the morning (he had been up since four-thirty shoveling coal), and they sighed sympathetically every afternoon to see him hustling back to the job. Eventually, John would pull his share of after-school turns with the shovel. “If you put in three tons,” he said with a grin, “you got a dollar fifty. It wasn’t bad.” Helen fielded the coal orders and worked for a bakery in the morning, sold insurance in the afternoon, and cleaned office buildings at night. Though lacking a high school diploma, she studied bookkeeping, passed the civil service exam with the highest possible mark, and ended up in the employ of the city of Pittsburgh.
“Just watching my mother, how hard she had to work for everything we had,” John said, “was the greatest thing I ever saw. Sometimes I’d come home from a ball game all beat up and she’d say, ‘You know Mrs. Wrigley up the street?’ and I’d say, ‘Yeah, I know Mrs. Wrigley up the street,’ and she’d say, ‘Well, she has three tons of coal sitting out in front of her house. See that it gets put in.’ I could hardly move, and I’d say, ‘Ma, it’s raining.’ And she’d say, ‘Yeah, it’s raining. Go do it.’ And I did.”
It was Millie’s job to wake the kids and get them off to school. Rousing John was a particular challenge. “You know how much the man liked to play football?” Leonard said. “That’s how much the boy loved to sleep.” The children stumbled downstairs every morning to what Shirley called “Mom’s infamous notes” on the kitchen table. “She’d leave, like, mother’s oats and stuff on top of the double boiler, so that they would still be warm, along with the day’s instructions.” Under no circumstances was anyone to leave the house that afternoon until the following things were taken care of. “And you knew, boy, you didn’t dare. ‘Start the dinner, peel the potatoes . . .’ John’s job was to keep the furnace banked. If Mom came home to a cold house, there’d be hell to pay.”
Helen was a fervent Catholic. The family marched in a loose formation to Sunday Mass in the basement of Saint Justin’s High School. Sometimes, after everyone else was gone, the Unitas family lingered to walk the Stations of the Cross. “She was never flowery,” Shirley said. “You didn’t get kisses and hugs from my mom. You knew she loved you because she was taking care of you. If you complained about something, she’d say, ‘You ate, didn’t you?’” All of Helen’s harsh sayings have been stitched into samplers in her children’s memories. “If you have to clean toilets for a living, make them shine.” “Show me where it’s written that you’re supposed to be happy.” “If you have a ‘need,’ we’ll talk about it. But if it’s only a ‘want,’ don’t bring it up.”
Though her large extended family had split off and spread out, Helen remained the matriarch in an Old World sense. With hats in hand, uncles came to the house on William Street to fidget and squirm on the edge of their chairs while requesting her permission to marry. “I was very young then,” Shirley said. “I couldn’t imagine these big boobs asking my mother this.” At Christmas, the whole family came back together. Shirley remembered a few bleak Christmases. “Sometimes we’d go down to the tree and there’d be nothing under there. Or you’d get a little doll or a tiny purse. I remember one year my sister got a brush and a comb.” But many of the Christmases were brilliant. Helen’s brother the priest, Father Constantine Superfisky (Father Connie to the children, and the contributor of John’s middle name), would arrive from Tiltonsville, Ohio, in an automobile loaded like a sleigh with presents.
In Lithuanian homes, Christmas Eve was the day of Kucios, a special seven- or even ten-fish supper. Ordinarily Helen was the plainest of cooks. Though no one ever had the nerve to say so, her spaghetti sauce and her chili tasted exactly the same; one had beans. Once a week, she served liver and onions. But for Kucios each branch of the family brought a dish. Not so much for the smelt or the herring, but for the ritual (and the potato pancakes), John and Shirley loved Christmas Eve most of all. There was one catch. In order to receive their gifts, the children were required to perform. One year John sang “I’m Popeye the Sailor Man.”
He had a worse than average singing voice. At the peak of Unitas’s fame, a Baltimore confectioner, Mary Sue Candies, hired him to warble its Easter jingle on television. (Mary Sue Easter Eggs / they’re the best Easter Eggs / honey, your money can buy / So rich and nutritious / and mmm-mmm delicious / so Mary Sue Easter Eggs, try.) Anyone who ever heard that commercial can still call back the sensation in the metal filling of a tooth. But Unitas had a meter if not a melody. The silent boy who you never knew was even in the house turned into a constant whistler. “Not that you could recognize what he was whistling,” Shirley said. “But you always knew where he was.”
He may have been moved to song by the Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne.
A baseball mitt or, later, football shoes clearly fell into the category of “want,” not “need.” “My brother Leonard thought of those things,” Shirley said. “He was our dad that way. Once, John and I were throwing a ball around the house and we broke the globe on a lamp. In a panic we called Leonard. Somehow—I have no idea how—he came up with an exact replacement before Mom got home. Leonard was incredible. When the games started to take over John’s life, Leonard always saw to it that John had whatever he needed to play.”