Johnny Unitas: America's Quarterbackby Lou Sahadi
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Offering an in-depth look into the private life behind one of the most important athletes of the 20th century, this comprehensive biography of Johnny Unitas explores the man who made the quarterback position the crux of a football team's offense and was an icon to millions of fans across the country. From his upbringing near the Monongahela River and becoming the “Golden Arm” to his retirement and battle with numerous physical ailments, this book reveals how he was affected by his boss's bets that were as much as $1 million per game and his livid anger at Colts management over his trade to Chargers. It also includes more than 15,000 words of never-before-published commentary directly from Unitas himself about his career, fame, moments of great personal pride, and others he'd rather forget.
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By Lou Sahadi
Triumph BooksCopyright © 2004 Lou Sahadi
All rights reserved.
The Greatest Game Ever Played
Before Johnny Unitas came along, Baltimore had not won a championship in any sport. The city was looked upon as a whistle-stop between Washington and New York on the Pennsylvania Railroad, or the midpoint for motorists making their way north or south on I-95.
When the Orioles baseball team appeared in 1954, the town experienced a sports awakening. But the residents of Baltimore needed something to cheer for, someone to embrace. That person was Unitas.
In 1958 the Baltimore Colts won their first-ever NFL championship by defeating the New York Giants 23–17 in the first sudden-death overtime game ever played in league history. Their leader was a slightly bowlegged quarterback named Johnny Unitas. That championship game has been called the greatest game ever played. That one game captured the hearts of pro football fans around the country, ushering in the era of televised sports and changing Sunday afternoons for millions of Americans.
With that one significant victory over the Giants in 1958, Unitas brought pride and respect to Baltimore. And the city needed both. Unitas won over Baltimore, and they adopted him as their hero.
Baltimore faced a Giants team that commanded respect. The Giants joined the league in 1925, two years after the NFL was officially launched. At that time, the 16 teams were formed in such hamlets as Canton, Frankford, Kenosha, Rochester, Dayton, Pottsville, and Columbus. For the shaky league to survive, it needed exposure. And what better place than New York, where such college heroes as Jim Thorpe and Harold "Red" Grange could gallop before record crowds at the Polo Grounds? When a record seventy-three thousand fans showed up to see Grange, the future of the Giants and the league suddenly brightened.
The Giants owner, Tim Mara, was a successful businessman and, of all things, a bookmaker. Back then, bookmaking was legal. Mara made a wise investment when he plunked down $500 cash to join the aspiring league. In only their third season, in 1927, the Giants won their first championship with an 11–1–1 record. However, in the stock market crash two years later, Mara suffered substantial financial losses and looked to his sons to run the team.
Mara's older son, Jack, was 22 years of age, and the younger son was 14-year-old Wellington, who overnight became the youngest owner of a football team. It was the beginning of his storied career as a major player in the Giants organization and in the league as well, which eventually led to his induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1997.
Somehow the young brothers made it work. By 1933, the Giants played for the championship again, only to lose to the Bears in Chicago, 23–21. However, when they faced the Bears again under the legendary coach and owner George Halas on a frigid nine-degree day in New York, they emerged victorious, 30–13. The game became famous as the "sneakers game" all because of Giants coach Steve Owen's inventiveness. At halftime, when the Giants were down 10–3, he cleverly equipped his players with basketball shoes to provide them with better footing on the icy turf. The results were truly amazing. While the Bears slipped and fell, the Giants scored four touchdowns and turned the game into a rout.
In the next decade, the Giants made it to the championship game three times, only to suffer despair. However, during the fifties, the Giants moved to Yankee Stadium and began to accumulate players that would become household names and be talked about on every sidewalk in New York. Their fans cheered at the mention of Frank Gifford, Kyle Rote, Alex Webster, Pat Summerall, Bob Schnelker, Charles Conerly, Mel Triplett, Sam Huff, Rosey Grier, Andy Robustelli, and Harland Svare. The New York media glorified them. They were indeed the glamour team, and the Baltimore Colts were going up against them.
The Giants had the pedigree, and adoration for them came from Yankee Stadium to Broadway to the sprawling suburbs that comprised the biggest metropolitan area of the country. Baltimore, on the other hand, was not taken too seriously, especially after they lost their final two games of the previous season. But the Colts were different; they were a lunch-bucket team that came to play, as evidenced by their nine victories in their first 10 games.
"We get along so well," said Raymond Berry, Unitas' favorite receiver. "There's a deep and real respect among us."
By late sunset of that game day, everyone in America would have that respect for Baltimore and its Colts. There was no question that the Colts and the Giants were the two best teams in 1958, and whoever emerged victorious would be genuine champions. Nobody in the crowd of 64,185 that made its way into Yankee Stadium that Sunday, or the million or so who watched a championship game on television for the first time, could have known that they would become observers to history.
Unitas and his nobodies came into New York as underdogs on an overcast December day. New York was a champion's town. The Yankees, with a new hero in Mickey Mantle, had won the World Series, and the Giants, who had won the NFL championship in 1956, were primed to make it two out of the last three years. Not only had the Giants shut out Cleveland 10–0, but they stuffed Jim Brown, the game's greatest running back, holding him to only eight yards on eight carries. Nobody had ever done that before.
The reason for the Giants' accomplishment was their middle linebacker, Sam Huff, who was the catalyst of a strong Giants defense. He was why they reached the championship game. He had followed Brown's every move, even without the ball, and gunned down the league's greatest running back before he could use his moves and his power to outrun the posse. Huff had joined the Giants as a rookie out of West Virginia, where he played offensive guard, in 1956, the same year Unitas came to Baltimore as a free agent. Huff had already made a name for himself with his stalking play and was the most revered member of the Giants defense.
Unitas was still waiting to make his mark, however. But when that long December afternoon of gut football in New York was finally over in darkness, he had. It was Babe Ruth's hallowed ground, and Joe DiMaggio's, and Mickey Mantle's, and when it was over, it would be Unitas' too.
The Colts had a scheduled 1:15 p.m. workout at Yankee Stadium. For the most part, the players' mood was quiet, almost subdued. After a 4:30 dinner, the players gathered in the team meeting room at 6:30 to discuss the key elements of strategy they would employ the next day. They were very cognizant of the solid Giants defense, Huff in particular, and designed a way to limit his effectiveness. The offensive game plan was to keep good splits along the offensive line, which would benefit the Colts' running game and provide pass protection for Unitas. The split ends and the flanking backs were instructed to keep as wide as possible in order to open up the passing lanes.
For the oppressive Huff, the Colts coaches felt that it would be easier to run away from him if he didn't stay in the middle of the Giants' 4–3 defense. They noted that his tendency was to follow the fullback most of the time, and that a draw play and inside runs would be effective against him. To set the offense in gear, Unitas was urged to go on early counts to discourage defensive moving, especially the blitz, and to help pass protection from any of the Giants' blitzing schemes.
By 10:00 p.m., the players were in their rooms. There were no wives this time. Ewbank was convinced that the Colts had lost to the Giants during the second week of November in New York because the wives were around. None of the players bought into that. They felt they lost because Unitas had been in the hospital having blood drawn from a punctured lung and couldn't play.
The team's pregame meal wasn't until 10:00, and the chartered bus for the short ride to the stadium was at 12:30. Some of the Colts got their first look at Huff at the hotel that morning. He lived there during the season and was in the coffee shop having breakfast. None of the Colts players said anything to him. After all, he was a hated enemy, one whose picture would appear on the cover of Time magazine a year later and who would be immortalized in 1960 in a CBS documentary, The Violent World of Sam Huff, narrated by Walter Cronkite. However, one of the Baltimore writers somehow started a conversation with Huff, who already had on his game face. The writer jokingly suggested to the extraordinary linebacker that he had time to catch the 1:00 train to West Virginia. Huff scornfully looked straight at him. "I can always take the train to West Virginia, but I can't always go out and win the world championship," snarled Huff, who then got up and left.
Running back L. G. "Long Gone" Dupre and sensational end Raymond Berry were the only Colts who didn't appear at the pregame meal. They never liked eating big meals before games — championship or otherwise — and they received permission to eat in the coffee shop. Preferring to spend time in religious meditation, Berry liked the solitude anyway. And before this day would end, he would make believers of anyone who saw him play.
The pregame taping in hotel room 626 had its humorous moments. Naturally, Donovan provided most of it. He had a small hole in his undershorts when he entered the room that trainer Dick Spassoff was using to tape the players' ankles and to provide whatever else they needed medically. It wasn't a large room, and the players entered in groups of 4 until all 33 of them were attended to. Donovan, being the jokester he was, got them laughing. "I feel like I'm going to be so rich today that here's what I'm going to do," he shouted.
At that moment, he looked down, took one of his meaty fingers, placed it in the torn spot in his undershorts, and in one quick motion ripped the pants off his big body. The room howled with laughter.
Dupre added to the fun while having his ankles taped. "Nobody likes your tape jobs, Spassoff, but I do," said Dupre.
Spassoff smiled. "I will give you a two-touchdown tape job."
The taping session was almost over, but Jim Parker, the team's outstanding 270-pound tackle, wished it had ended sooner. He went crashing down to the floor when all four legs of the chair he was sitting on gave way at once. Parker came down with a thud, but fortunately, he wasn't hurt. Laughter again resonated in the room as Spassoff picked up the remaining parts of the broken chair — he wasn't troubled by it at all. "We're going to win, we're going to win!" he shouted.
Buzz Nutter, Unitas' faithful center, wondered out loud about who won last week's game. And that, too, contributed to some laughs. "Who won that game between the Browns and the Giants last week?" he joked. "All that stuff Weeb put us through, and he forgot to tell us who we were going to play."
At exactly 12:30, as scheduled, the Colts' bus made its way to Yankee Stadium. It didn't take long. Before the players could stretch out and get comfortable, they were ready to leave the bus. Some of the Giants fans arrived early and stood watching the intruders from Baltimore. One recognized Donovan: "Hey, Donovan, I hope this team is better than the one you played on at Mt. St. Michael's," he teased. Donovan was laughing too hard to answer, one of the few times he was without words. The good-natured heckler must have been from Donovan's neighborhood.
Once inside the locker room, the Colts found no relief. Ewbank was uncharacteristically irascible in addressing his players after they had finished their pregame warm-ups and quietly waited for the moment of battle. He was trying to motivate them for the biggest game in the previously moribund history of the franchise — he wasn't about to lose their chance for glory.
Usually a mild-mannered individual, Ewbank was visceral in exhorting his warriors, calling them out individually by name and creating an eerie silence that froze the players. He began by telling them they all had something to prove and the place to do it was New York. But then he jolted them by shouting that they were all a bunch of rejects and started naming names in front of the entire team: "In 14 years, I heard 'em all," said Marchetti. "'Win one for Mother. Win one for Father. Don't disappoint all these people watching on television.' Yeah, he named me and Unitas. He didn't miss anybody.
"Weeb really put it to us. He went down the roster name by name: Ameche, Green Bay didn't want you; Lipscomb, you were released; Berry, people said you'd never be a pro; Donovan, they got rid of you–too fat and slow."
Weeb didn't know it, but Donovan never heard him. He was in the bathroom throwing up when Rechichar, who was in Weeb's doghouse, sauntered in. Rechichar didn't even know if he was going to play or not and couldn't understand why Ewbank was mad at him. Later he got a reprieve when he learned he would kick off.
The world-championship game had a unique story line associated with it. It was simply the haves against the have-nots. It was blue-collar Baltimore against Madison-Avenue Giants. Unitas was blue collar. He wasn't a suit guy. The glamour that personified the New York team was its defense. If it beat the Browns in the playoff game the week before by humbling Jim Brown to one yard per run in eight carries, then what chance could Ameche and Moore have? It was all up to Unitas, and he accepted the challenge. He had a destiny to fulfill. The daunting Giants defense presented a monumental task. And Unitas would have a balmy winter day to get it done.
There was a great deal more to the Giants defense than Huff. There was Andy Robustelli, a smart, quick defensive stalwart at one end and the rugged Jim Katcavage on the other. The sentinels in the middle of the line were big Rosey Grier at 6'5" and the oppressive Dick Modzelewski. Unitas was told to throw over Modzelewski, who was five inches shorter than Grier. Emlen Tunnell, a savvy safety, and Jim Patton, who had 11 interceptions at the other safety spot, buoyed the defensive backfield.
Indeed, the Giants' hallmark was a magnificent defense. In reality, it was the first defense to have a glamour that their fans really identified with. Defensively, the Giants had limited their opponents to a league-low 183 points during the 1958 season. They won their four final games by yielding a total of 37 points — an average of nine points per contest. The adage that defense wins games was never more evident than during the final month of the Giants' regular season. And they would need every bit of defensive strength if they were to stop Unitas and his band of high-scoring Colts.
Unitas' adversary was quarterback Charlie Conerly, a 37-year-old gunslinger who had a bittersweet relationship with Giants fans. When the Giants won, he was beloved. And, by the same equation, if they lost, he was scorned. Conerly had the respect of his teammates and was also a Mara favorite. He wasn't anywhere near the passer that the younger Unitas was, but he knew how to win on guile and grit. He won some meaningful games with the Giants in the 11 years he was with them. The latest was the 10–0 playoff triumph against the Browns the previous week. Conerly scored the Giants' only touchdown, running 10 yards on his aging legs with a lateral from Gifford. In the 47–7 rout of the Bears in the 1956 championship game, which gave the Giants their first title in 18 years, Conerly threw for two touchdowns.
His craggy looks made him the original Marlboro Man, which explained why he always had a cigarette close by. Although he never was a cowboy, having been raised in Clarksdale, Mississippi, he easily portrayed one in a Western movie. The Giants-Colts game was the biggest game of his career, and it was a showdown between Conerly and Unitas.
Conerly was adept at getting the ball to Gifford on delays coming out of the backfield, an integral part of whatever offense the Giants manufactured. Gifford was the biggest threat to the Colts defense. He led the Giants in rushing, pass receiving, and scoring, and he could also throw the football. Mara cherished him, and Gifford's movie-star looks weren't overlooked by the ladies and Madison Avenue. He was a matinee idol.
Conerly may have been the gunslinger and Gifford may have been the leading man, but Johnny Unitas was certainly the hero that December day. During the sixth game of the season, he had suffered an injury that might have sidelined lesser men.
Excerpted from Johnny Unitas by Lou Sahadi. Copyright © 2004 Lou Sahadi. Excerpted by permission of Triumph Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Lou Sahadi began his second career as one of the country's most prolific sports authors after being a newspaper and magazine writer and editor for more than two decades, including two years as a columnist for the Miami Herald. He is the author of bestselling official autobiographies with Willie Mays, Don Shula, Hank Stram, and Len Dawson. He lives in Boca Raton, Florida. Art Donovan is a former defensive tackle who played for three NFL teams, most notably the Baltimore Colts. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1968. Peyton Manning is the quarterback for the Indianapolis Colts. He holds the record for most NFL MVP awards with four.
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