Monday, August 12, 2013

No. 19 was The Man

        It's impossible, in my opinion, to designate "the greatest quarterback of all time," as I discussed in a previous blog (June 20, 2013). But the most important quarterback of all time -- there's no doubt.
        Johnny U., No. 19, Baltimore Colts.
        The crewcut, the high-top cleats, the white helmet with the horseshoe, the all-white, or blue-on-white uniforms, the cool, the class. "The Golden Arm."
        If you were a kid of the late 1950s/early 1960s, if you were an NFL fan then, Johnny Unitas was the guy. And if you were like me, and you hopped on a winning bandwagon, the Colts were your team.
        Before Dandy Don and Roger the Dodger and Troy (if you became a Dallas Cowboys fan), before Laird, Prather, Bradshaw and Ferguson (if you were a Woodlawn High School fan), there were the Colts and Unitas.
        I actually thought that the horseshoe on the Colts' helmet was a "U" because of Unitas.
 Hey, what did I know?
        Like millions of others, I was enchanted by the 1958 NFL Championship Game -- "The Greatest Game Ever Played," as it's known -- when Unitas brought the Colts from behind and drove them the length of the field twice in the final minutes to first force the first overtime game in NFL history and then deliver the winning touchdown, Alan Ameche's 1-yard plunge through a huge gap in the New York Giants' defense.  
        That was the day the Unitas legend really began, the day Unitas-to-Raymond Berry became arguably the NFL's best-ever pass-catch combination. That's the day, they say, the NFL became America's Game.
         That's the title of a book I read recently, the best history of the NFL I've seen. Then at the end of an e-mail exchange with a friend after he responded to one of my recent blogs on the NFL (well, the one on Jerry Jones), he suggested, "Why don't you write about Unitas?"
           So I went to the library and checked out a biography: Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas, by Tom Callahan. And here's what reading it confirmed: He deserves to be considered a hero. So I'm writing about him.
            Consider these quarterbacks who also said Unitas their hero: Bart Starr (who watched Johnny U. become a star while Bart was still finding his way with the Packers); Joe Namath (who wore jersey No. 19 in high school and was known as "Joey U."); Joe Montana (who wore No. 19 in high school and again at the end of his career with the Kansas City Chiefs); Dan Fouts, who as a rookie replaced Unitas as a starter in John's ill-fated last season with the San Diego Chargers (what an ugly sight, Unitas in a Chargers' uniform); and Archie Manning (see the closing on this blog).
             The greatest quote I've read about Unitas came from his Hall of Fame tight end, John Mackey: "Playing with Johnny Unitas was like being in the huddle with God."
             He was the first NFL QB to throw for 40,000 career yards. He was named the NFL's Quarterback of the Century. His 47-games-in-a-row with a touchdown pass was the most prominent of the 22 NFL passing records he held when he retired after 17 seasons.
             He was, by all accounts, the most competitive, the toughest son-of-a-gun. Played in an era when defenses could rough up people within (and beyond) the rules; Johnny U. played through some horrific injuries (he had a dozen football-related surgeries).
             He wasn't a great-looking athlete, almost frail when he was young, a somewhat plodding runner but a tough one. But he delivered passes in classic form, an easy ball to handle, and he was a sensational deep-ball passer.
              His best attribute through was his cool, especially in clutch game situations, and his  leadership qualities were equal to anyone who's ever played. He was straight forward, plain-spoken, but a terrific teammate, just a nice guy who was courteous to the media and fans and cooperative, but didn't call attention to himself.
              Liked his jokes, could tell stories, and liked his drinks (but not excessively). Still, he remained somewhat aloof from teammates, knowing -- similar to a coach -- he would have to make decisions on the field that not everyone would like.
              Called his own plays, always, and ran the offense, and at times, didn't think his coaches were making the right calls personnel-wise, but didn't make an issue of that publicly.
              Above all, he was a winner -- even if the Packers surpassed the Colts as the NFL's dominant team of the '60s.
              I never stopped pulling for Unitas and the Colts, although the Cowboys became my No. 1 team. But if the Cowboys had to lose their first Super Bowl, and they did in the infamous Super Bowl V (my worst NFL memory), at least it was to Baltimore and Johnny U.
              The Colts, and North Louisiana, had quite a few connections. Three Unitas teammates were linebacker Leo Sanford (Fair Park/Louisiana Tech) on the 1958 championship Colts; defensive tackle Fred Miller (Homer/LSU); and punter David Lee (Minden/Louisiana Tech). I would imagine they will all tell you that Johnny U. was their hero, too.
              Sanford, 84 and a lifelong Shreveport resident, is mentioned in the Johnny U. biography because he left the championship game with a knee injury just after kickoff. But he did return for a couple of snaps on PAT and field-goal kicks, including Steve Myrha's game-tying field goal with 0:07 remaining in regulation.
              It was Myrha who replaced Leo at linebacker in that game. Which is significant because David Lee remembers that soon after joining the Colts in 1966, Unitas told him that he thought the kickers should be position players, too (that's the way it'd always been; Lou Michaels, for instance, was the team's placekicker and a defensive end at the time).
              "He was just being honest, that was John, that's how he felt," Lee said. "But after he saw that I was going to help the team (he was an All-Pro punter in 1966), he accepted me a lot easier."
              Lee can laugh about his first meeting with Unitas.
              "It was in training camp and he came up and extended his hand and said, 'I'm John Unitas,' " David recalled. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Do you think I'm stupid? I know who you are.' "
              Here's what else David learned from watching Unitas, Berry, Lenny Moore & Co.: "Total commitment. They were committed to being the best they could be, always.
              "John was just so confident in his ability," he added. "Not cocky. He was just sure of what he was doing."
               The Colts/Louisiana connection would carry on, even the year Unitas left, with Bert Jones (Ruston/LSU) at quarterback and Roger Carr (Cotton Valley/Louisiana Tech) at receiver and Larry Anderson (Neville-Monroe/Louisiana Tech) at cornerback/kick returner.
              Bert was the Colts' No. 1 QB for most of nine seasons and 16 years after he retired, yet another Louisiana high school QB would take over the Colts. Peyton Manning was there for 13 years, shattering many Unitas records and winning one Super Bowl title, and his uniform number (18) only one digit from The Man himself.
              In the Johnny U. book, Peyton is quoted as saying that his dad, Archie -- himself a folk hero in Mississippi and South Louisiana -- had two sports heroes as a young man: Mickey Mantle and Johnny Unitas.
              That is good enough for me.


  1. From Rod Chandler: Johnny U. -- what the NFL was and should be all about.

  2. From Skip Young: Great blog as usual. I'm glad the mention of Raymond Berry was there -- the guy too little, too slow, not enough talent to play. He, as stories have it, was one of the few, if only one, that would stay on the practice field as long as Johhny U. wanted to -- and that was waaaay after everyone else left.