Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL

Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL

by Jack Gilden


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In their seven years together, quarterback Johnny Unitas and coach Don Shula, kings of the fabled Baltimore Colts of the 1960s, created one of the most successful franchises in sports. Unitas and Shula had a higher winning percentage than Lombardi’s Packers, but together they never won a championship. Baltimore lost the big game to the Browns in 1964 and to Joe Namath and the Jets in 1969’s Super Bowl III—both in stunning upsets. The Colts’ near misses in the Shula era were among the most confounding losses any sports franchise ever suffered. Rarely had a team in any league performed so well, over such an extended period, only to come up empty.

The two men had a complex relationship stretching back to their time as young teammates competing for their professional lives. Their personal conflict mirrored their tumultuous times. As they elevated the brutal game of football, the world around them clashed about Vietnam, civil rights, and sex. Collision of Wills looks at the complicated relationship between Don Shula, the league’s winningest coach of all time, and his star player Johnny Unitas and how their secret animosity fueled the Colts in an era when their losses were as memorable as their victories.


Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781496206916
Publisher: Nebraska
Publication date: 10/01/2018
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 377,883
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Jack Gilden is a past winner of the Simon Rockower journalism award.  His work has appeared in Orioles Magazine, the Baltimore Sun and Evening Sun, and the Baltimore Jewish Times.  He also consults businesses about their messaging and teaches writing at the college level. For more information about the author visit

Read an Excerpt


A Legend Departs and an Ambitious Young Man Arrives

If anyone knew what Johnny Unitas was thinking, they certainly weren't saying so in print. The Colts, efficient and professional in all things, had just simultaneously made two blockbuster announcements. First, they had discharged their famous head coach, Weeb Ewbank, ending a nine-year reign in which he took the team from virtual bankruptcy to back-to-back world titles. Second, they were replacing him with a relatively unknown thirty-three-year-old Lions assistant who had no head-coaching experience whatsoever. That ambitious young bounder was named Don Shula.

Shula was one of the Colts himself, just a few years before. He spent four years toiling as a defensive back on some horrific teams, only to be released by Coach Ewbank just as the organization was on the threshold of greatness. He had been the teammate of eleven men, including Unitas, who were still active on the roster. Shula was younger than some of the men he was about to lead.

Team owner Carroll Rosenbloom, or "C.R." to his minions, disposed of Ewbank in a short, private meeting at the Colts' offices in January 1963. The news was delivered beneath a photograph of Weeb in full command of his champions. Afterward, the owner reported that the deposed coach "took it calmly, and like a man." After releasing Ewbank, Rosenbloom, ever the paternalist, made the former head of his organization a rather insulting offer: the victorious coach in the Greatest Game and the man who made the franchise famous was offered an "unspecified job," in the front office. What would his duties be?

"Well, he couldn't get into actual coaching," Rosenbloom told reporters.

Ewbank turned him down. Nevertheless, the deposed coach gladly accepted a severance check for $60,000, enough money, in those days, to buy several well-appointed homes in the Baltimore area for cash.

Shula was having a far better day. Coroneted in grand style, he met the press on the marble floors and Oriental rugs of the Belvedere Hotel, a masterpiece of Gilded Age architecture and a standing relic of a once great city now in steep decline.

Reporters buzzed about the scene and looked for every angle they could find. They made much of the fact that Shula once played for the Colts, they described his physical features (especially his granite jaw), they commented about his almost cocky confidence, and, of course, they marveled at his youth.

They also interviewed the men with numbers on their shirts. Players like Carl Taseff, Bill Pellington, and Gino Marchetti were asked their opinions of the dramatic changes. Ostensibly, it seemed they were chosen for their long-standing knowledge of Shula, but, in fact, they may have been spoon-fed to the press. Behind the scenes these three had, for some time, urged Rosenbloom to make a change. And they all had lobbied for Shula. They were former teammates of the new young coach, they were all from the defensive side of the ball, and they were all Catholic.

Until the day he died the Protestant Ewbank believed that he was undone in Baltimore by a conspiracy of Catholic players.

John Constantine Unitas was Catholic, too, but he wasn't at Shula's press conference. The "Golden Arm's" opinion was neither noted nor even speculated upon by any member of the press. This was in character for Unitas, who could be blunt in personal conversations but was presented to the public as a kind of virtuous warrior who dutifully followed the chain of command. He was also famously unknowable, a laconic loner who seemed to live inside his own head. He certainly would never belong to any clique of players. He had an unusual personal and professional chemistry with Raymond Berry, who shared his passions for the game and unshakable work ethic. But if there was any one man in the organization to whom Unitas was most attached, it was Ewbank himself.

Weeb Ewbank was the only coach of any standing in either college or the professional ranks who had given Unitas a chance, signing him when he was a reject from the Steelers, the worst organization in professional football. As legend had it, the Colts received a postcard from someone who wrote to extol Unitas's virtues. Based on that they invited him to Baltimore for a special tryout. They were impressed enough by what they saw to keep him.

The truth was slightly different. In fact, the Colts often received communications of one sort or another about amateur players or physical specimens whom they should see. The player himself usually wrote those letters. Not the type of organization to let anything fall through the cracks, the Colts had a tryout for all these players every year. Usually, it was the same day as the Preakness, the famous horse race held at Baltimore's Pimlico racetrack. Unitas also came to the team's attention through a note, but he wasn't the same as the others. Ewbank was waiting for him.

"In the spring we would ... bring in maybe fifty to sixty boys who had written to us for a tryout," Charley Winner, a former player of Ewbank's at Washington University, his son-in-law, and a scout for the Browns, remembered. "In college we had played Louisville [Unitas's school], and Frank Camp was the coach there for many, many years, very successful. He called Weeb, and he said, 'Weeb, don't overlook this boy Unitas. He was drafted by Pittsburgh, but they never gave him a chance.' So we invited Unitas for that tryout, and as soon as he threw the ball, I mean there was no question about it. He set up pretty quick, he recognized the receiver, and he was right on the money. Go passes he put it right on your fingertips. He could run, too. They called him Stilts 'cause he was kind of stiff at the hips, but he could avoid getting hit. So we signed him right away."

To an outsider it might have seemed that the coach brought in the young unknown quarterback to keep the bench from getting cold. The Colts already had George Shaw, who had only recently been the very first player chosen in the draft. But Shaw was a player Ewbank had never really wanted, and at practice Weeb paired Unitas with Berry, an unheralded receiver prospect whom the coach had maneuvered to bring to the Colts.

Eventually, Ewbank would pay Otto Graham, the great Cleveland quarterback who had recently retired, to come to Baltimore and tutor the developing Unitas. Graham had taken the Browns to ten championship games in a row and knew the intricacies of the Cleveland offense that Ewbank ran better than anyone else in the world.

In 1956, when Shaw went down with an injured knee in a typically brutal affair against the Bears, all of these machinations came together. Ewbank never hesitated before sending in the rookie Unitas to replace him. When the young quarterback's first pass was intercepted by the Bears' J. C. Caroline and run back for a touchdown, the Monsters of the Midway routed the Colts. But the very next week Ewbank penciled Unitas's name into the starting lineup again. By the end of the season the rookie had a stranglehold on the job. In 1957, just Unitas's second year, he was voted Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the league.

Ewbank didn't lead through fear or intimidation; he set an example of professionalism. Rather than drive the men, he saw himself as a teacher. He was highly meticulous about the tiniest details, such as stance, tackling technique, or even the slightest movement of a first step. Once, Royce Womble, a Colts receiver from West Texas, caught a 49-yard touchdown pass, yet Weeb pulled him aside when he came off the field to lecture him about some flaw in how he ran the pattern.

"Now Royce, next time you run it, do this," Weeb told him, and did a little demonstration.

Womble looked at his coach with a smile and said, "Hell, Weeb, you can't get any more than six points."

Ewbank was all business, but he had patience; he understood what it took for a player to develop. Unitas responded to this approach with unprecedented professional success but also with a depth of personal feeling. His own father had died when he was still a very young boy. His mother worked backbreaking jobs, day and night, just to keep the family afloat. So even though he was grown to full maturity and famous in every corner of the nation, even though he was a leader among diverse and tough men, many of whom had been to war, and even though he was already a father with his own family, Unitas may have still felt a painful void. Ewbank filled it with acceptance and gentle guidance. Though the two were of different religious affiliations, they sometimes worshipped together. Once, after Mass, as they walked home, Unitas abruptly turned to Ewbank and told him, "I love you." Charley Winner, the only other man present, knew exactly what Unitas meant: "Weeb was a father figure to many men," he said.

If only the relationship between Ewbank and Carroll Rosenbloom was that affectionate. In fact, theirs was a difficult marriage right from the start. Back in 1953 when he was looking for a coach, Rosenbloom's first choice was Blanton Collier, another Paul Brown acolyte. But Collier, loyal and perhaps even a little fearful of his autocratic boss, turned Rosenbloom down. An anonymous Browns board member had suggested to Rosenbloom that he should pursue Ewbank. But when the Colts asked for permission to speak with him, Coach Brown, a jealous man and notorious double-crosser where his assistants were concerned, told them that Ewbank wasn't interested.

And then fate stepped in.

Charley Winner happened to be on the same flight as Colts general manager (GM) Don Kellett. He was seated right next to the gm. First, he coaxed Kellett into discussing the Colts' coaching search with him, and then he told Kellett that Ewbank was, in fact, very interested in the job. He gave Kellett Weeb's home phone number, and the wheels were officially in motion.

Comically short and stocky, especially compared to the behemoths he ordered around, Weeb looked like a ten-pin ball in a brown suit and a crew cut. Despite his unlikely appearance, Ewbank knew as much about the business of winning football as anyone in the world. He not only coached the Cleveland tackles but was also a shrewd judge of talent who oversaw the Browns' annual influx of superb draft picks. His head was brimming with invaluable intellectual property.

Yet Rosenbloom settled for him. At the press conference announcing Ewbank's hiring, the owner wasted no time putting pressure on his new coach. Ewbank will either win or "take the consequences," the owner told the press, tempering the moment's joy. And then, just in case anyone missed the subtleties of that, Rosenbloom said with a big, warm grin, "I'd fire my own grand-mother if I thought she couldn't do a winning job."

Despite the owner's misgivings, Ewbank instantly brought the organization credibility and a methodology. He and his staff poured through "movies" of all the team's games from the previous year and graded every Colt on every single play. This dedication created a kind of prescience about talent. For instance, he determined that one of the franchise's lone bright spots, Gino "the Giant" Marchetti, an offensive tackle under his predecessor, would be more effective disrupting quarterbacks than protecting them. So Ewbank moved the Giant to defensive end, where he quickly established himself as the best pass rusher in the game and an eventual first-ballot Hall of Famer.

In his very first draft with the Colts (1954), Ewbank was restricted from sitting at the team's table, a constraint that came as a small act of revenge from his fulminating former boss, Paul Brown. A master of gamesmanship, Brown successfully argued to the league that Ewbank was still in transition between the two franchises. Nevertheless, Weeb worked behind the scenes to aid his new team. He surreptitiously urged the Colts to select Southern Methodist University wide receiver Raymond Berry, in the twentieth round, the 232nd player chosen. The coach saw something in Berry, though the offensive and defensive end was still only a junior and appeared to others as slow afoot and a little odd. Berry had never produced much in college; he mostly played defense, and he was too small for that in the pros. On offense he'd caught only thirty-three passes his entire collegiate career to that point (he was a "future" pick with another year of school left). But for Weeb there was a lot to like in the lean, tall young man. Raymond was a coach's son who was meticulous in his preparation and approach to the game. Ewbank may have imagined a player in Berry who could understand and thrive in a complex professional offense. Whatever Weeb knew that others didn't, when he urged the fledgling Colts to select Berry, he had corralled a future Hall of Famer, one who would pioneer methods of preparation that fundamentally changed the way the game was played.

Ewbank's professional improvements to the Colts might've been obvious to him, but they weren't reflected in the bottom line. In his head-coaching debut his team lost to the Rams 48–0. The Colts limped through the rest of their schedule and eventually finished just 3-9. That was the very same record Keith Molesworth, Ewbank's supposedly inept predecessor, had mismanaged the year before. Worse even than that dismal record, Rosenbloom still didn't fully trust Ewbank's judgments a full year into their relationship.

The night before selections commenced for the 1955 draft, dissension broke out in the Colts' hotel room. Ewbank told Rosenbloom he was prepared to select Georgia Tech linebacker Larry Morris. But one of his youngest assistant coaches, Joe Thomas, pushed his way into the conversation and impertinently spoke up to disagree with his boss. Thomas addressed the owner directly and argued that the team currently had enough defensive talent to compete. What the Colts needed, Thomas said, was an infusion of offense.

Thomas argued that the man to take was George Shaw, the highly regarded quarterback from Oregon. Rosenbloom sided with Thomas, then just a kid in his twenties, over his experienced head coach. The next morning, with the first and third overall picks in the draft, the Colts selected Shaw number one and, two picks later, collared Alan "the Horse" Ameche, the Heisman Trophy– winning fullback from Wisconsin.

With Shaw and Ameche somewhat thrust upon him, Ewbank never quite took to either. Shaw initially wore the mantle of first player chosen pretty well. He had a strong arm, and he was mobile, a fast runner who maneuvered well in the pocket. He quickly became the Colts' starter and generated a great deal of excitement among the fans. Yet Shaw never really amounted to much in Baltimore. After just a year or so at the helm he was injured and supplanted by a man who was his polar opposite, a scrap heaper who showed up not with fanfare but with a touch of bursitis in his throwing shoulder. That player was Unitas.

Ameche, of course, became a fabled name. He was permanently canonized in the lore of professional football as the man who plunged over the goal line and defeated sudden death in the Greatest Game Ever. Yet Ewbank saw him until the end as spoiled and uncoachable. They would accomplish great things together, the Horse and the keeper of the Colts, but they would simply never see eye-to-eye.

Larry Morris, the linebacker Ewbank had favored over Shaw with that first pick, went to the Rams. Eventually, he was traded to Chicago, where he led the pre-Butkus Monsters to the 1963 nfl Championship. He was voted mvp of that title game and later named to the NFL's All-Decade Team for the 1960s.

The most interesting year of the rebuilding process was 1956, which also happened to be the first season nfl games were nationally televised by cbs. The Colts improved ever so slightly, going 5-7. To the rest of the world they still appeared to be a second-division team, but Ewbank, at least, could see some major progress. First, the Colts beat the Bears right out of the gate in the season opener. That was a significant victory. Chicago would finish the year as the Western Division champs. Weeks later, in the rematch, the Colts were soundly defeated but enjoyed what may have been the single most important in-season improvement a football team ever made when Shaw injured his knee and young Johnny Unitas tentatively shuffled in to replace him.

Things were changing as Weeb's plans were accelerating. Like the Israelites fated to wander the desert until the slave generations had passed, Colts players who made up the early losing teams faded away, while the great players of the nascent dynasty stepped to the fore. Though the transition was dramatic, it wasn't always easy to determine the has-beens from the genuine Colts.

Don Shula was a strong case in point. A defensive halfback, as cornerbacks were then called, Shula started in the NFL as an unlikely prospect. The Colts picked him up in the famous five-for-ten trade with the Browns. Cleveland, the most advanced organization in professional football at that time, had discovered him almost by accident. Paul Brown and his entire staff alighted for Cleveland Stadium one fine fall day in 1950 to see the players for Syracuse, a national powerhouse in town to play the tiny Ohio school John Carroll University. John Carroll didn't produce many NFL prospects, and Shula, then a not-too-swift running back, wasn't on anyone's radar. But Shula from nearby Grand River, Ohio, had a big day, rushing for more than 100 yards in the upset victory over the Orangemen. One of the Browns' coaches, acting as a scout, suggested that the team draft Shula and his teammate Carl Taseff. That scout was Weeb Ewbank.


Excerpted from "Collision of Wills"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Jack Gilden.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. A Legend Departs and an Ambitious Young Man Arrives
2. Rise and Fall of the Colts
3. Complicated Men
4. Shula Encounters Unexpected Problems
5. The Colts’ Greatest Season Yet
6. Black, White, and the Browns
7. Story Lines
8. The 1964 Championship Game
9. The Conflict
10. Love Is Also a Collision Sport
11. Unprecedented Success
12. Changing Times
13. War
14. 1968
15. Super Bowl III
16. Denouement

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