Published: Oct 04, 2017
Much conversation this year about violence in football and brain injuries that cause dementia in men in their 40s. Also, predictably, praise for football violence by men who never played the sport. Long ago, decades before anyone cared about the health of professional athletes, there was a player who defined toughness — or was it heart? This man.
His father died when he was five, leaving behind a hard-pressed family and a coal-delivery business. After school, Johnny helped out — like, before he was ten years old, shoveling three tons of coal into a customer’s basement while it was raining.
But then, Johnny Unitas dedicated himself to everything he did. Comic books: he could read them for hours. Later, he fell in love with the sports fiction of John Tunis. And, of course, he had infinite time to dream about playing football for Notre Dame.
Notre Dame wasn’t interested. Louisville was. Notre Dame’s mistake. In a game that Louisville lost in a 59-6 rout, Unitas completed 9 of 16 passes, returned 6 kickoffs, made 86% of Louisville’s tackles (he played offense and defense), and ran 22 yards for his team’s only touchdown. When it was over, he got a huge ovation. No one saw how, in the locker room, he could not raise his arms and his uniform shirt had to be cut off him.
If you didn’t get goose bumps just then, stay with me. You will. In Johnny Unitas, we are talking about a genuine hero — and not just because he is regarded, almost universally, as the greatest mid-century football player. Unitas is thrilling to read about, and to think about, because his struggle took place in the open, in real time, with the outcome uncertain and physical pain guaranteed. Unitas never complained. He never made apologies. He had a job to do, and it was his responsibility to get it done. [To buy the paperback of “Johnny U” from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]
In a time when college football was a big deal and the pros were a bunch of rowdies who earned $5,000 or $6,000, he did that job so well that, like Michael Jordan, he made sport into art. He didn’t know about wasted moves. A dancer: watch him drop back to pass. A magician: see him spin and feint. And, above all, a kind of performance artist: the embodiment of leadership.
The final score of his first game as quarterback of the Baltimore Colts was a 58-27 loss. The mood on the team bus was sour. Except for Johnny Unitas, who sat with a sportswriter and coolly relived the game, explaining everything that went wrong and suggesting how he would fix it. That was confidence, not bragging — at the end of the season, he had the best stats for a rookie quarterback in the history of the NFL.
The following season, his streak began: He threw 122 touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games. (The previous record: 22 consecutive games.) Any modern quarterback would have needed a new helmet — to accommodate his swelled head — early in that streak. Not Unitas. When a teammate bought a house, he helped him lay the kitchen linoleum. In the huddle, before calling a play, he would ask, “Do you need anything? How can I help? What can I do?”
Team first. That was Unitas. In the huddle, a black player said that an opponent had called him “nigger.” Unitas said: “Let him through.” And he threw a bullet pass into that guy’s head so hard it felled him. To sportswriters, after a game, he described everyone’s goofs as his mistakes. He played hurt; he had a Terminator’s tolerance for pain. Of course his teammates loved him. “Playing with Johnny Unitas,” one said, “was like being in the huddle with God.”
On December 28, 1958, when the Colts played the New York Giants, a national television audience discovered what Baltimore fans already knew. The game was a nailbiter that went into overtime. “John told us, ‘We’re going to go right down the field and score,’” Alan Ameche recalled. “No doubt about it. You could feel the confidence.” And they did. When it was over, an unemotional Unitas turned and walked off the field.
That was, it is said, the game that put professional football on the map, the game that made celebrities out of quarterbacks. You’d never guess that from Unitas — he was all about the game. (Once, with his nose “bleeding like a running faucet,” he shouted at a concerned ref to get out of the way so he could call the next play.) Eventually, as it does to all athletes, his body betrayed him. He retired without fanfare.
In 1968, Unitas was drawing back his arm to throw a pass when a Dallas Cowboy mashed the inside of his elbow. Unitas came back to play again — the arm seemed fine up through his retirement in 1974 — but by the mid-1990s he was having problems with the nerves that controlled his hand and fingers. He lost strength and feeling in the hand and became unable to rotate the thumb back and grasp objects.
Unitas’s two knee replacements work perfectly well — cartilage and ligaments in the right knee were torn in a collision with two Bears in 1963, while the left wore out from years of favoring the right — but when he plays golf, which is about all the exercise he can get with those knees, he has to use his left hand to close the fingers of his gloved right hand around the grip, then strap the hand to the shaft with a Velcro strip.
Unitas has demanded disability compensation from the league but says he has been turned down for various reasons, among them that he didn’t apply by age 55 — though his right hand didn’t fail him until he was 60 — and that the league pays him a pension of $4,000 a month. The NFL adds that, in its opinion, Unitas is not “totally and permanently disabled.”
Meanwhile, of that magical hand that spun footballs like strands of gold, Unitas says, “I have no strength in the fingers. I can’t use a hammer or saw around the house. I can’t button buttons. I can’t use zippers. Very difficult to tie shoes. I can’t brush my teeth, because I can’t hold a brush. I can’t hold a fork with the right hand. I can’t pick this phone up….You give me a full cup of coffee, and I can’t hold it. I can’t comb my hair.”
He died at 69, in 2002, of a heart attack while working out on an exercise machine.
“Action is eloquence,” Shakespeare wrote, and in a time when we mostly see exceptions to that truth, Unitas stands as proof. He didn’t talk much. He didn’t need to. Who he was and what he believed was displayed every time he walked onto the field.
So this book is for men who love the game and romance of football. And it is for women who want to be in relationship with those men. But more, it is for all who once believed in heroes and have been bitterly disappointed by those who are fierce talk and no guts.
Here, at last, is a guy you can understand and respect. A field marshal who led from the front. A tough guy with heart. A leader who understood people and cared about them and looked out for them.
“Do you need anything? How can I help? What can I do?”
If you’re looking for a role model, you could do a lot worse.