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Wednesday, September 11, 2002
Updated: September 26, 12:52 PM ET
Unitas dies of heart attack at 69

Associated Press

BALTIMORE -- Johnny Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback who broke nearly every NFL passing record and won three championships with the Baltimore Colts in an 18-year career, died Sept. 11 at age 69.

Johnny Unitas was named NFL Player of the Year three times.

Unitas had a heart attack while working out at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium, said Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, a spokeswoman for St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson. Doctors and nurses at the scene could not resuscitate him, she said.

Unitas underwent emergency triple-bypass surgery in March 1993 after a heart attack.

"Johnny U,'' with his trademark crewcut and black hightops, was the first to throw for 40,000 yards and now ranks seventh, surpassed by a group of quarterbacks who played after him, with rules that make passing easier.

Unitas retired after the 1973 season with 22 NFL records, among them marks for most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing, most touchdown passes and most seasons leading the league in TD passes.

"Johnny Unitas will always be a legendary name in NFL history,'' league commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, he epitomized the position with his leadership skills and his ability to perform under pressure.''

Unitas completed 2,830 of 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. He completed at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games, a record not challenged since it was set from 1956-60.

Career highlights
  • Completed 2,830 passes for 40,239 yards and a record 290 touchdown passes during his career.
  • Threw TD passes in record 47 consecutive games.
  • Had three seasons of 3,000 yards or more.
  • NFL MVP in 1964 and 1967.
  • Led Colts to 1958, '59 NFL crowns.
  • "Player of the Decade'' for the 1960s.
  • Ten Pro-Bowl selections.
  • Inducted into Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
  • Named "Greatest Player in the First 50 Years of Pro Football.''
  • Named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.
  • Unitas was Most Valuable Player in 1964 and 1967 and played in 10 Pro Bowls. He led Baltimore to the NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 and the Super Bowl in 1970.

    "He was one of the toughest competitors I ever knew, and overcame tremendous odds to become one of the greatest players in NFL history,'' said Don Shula, Unitas' coach from 1963-69.

    On the NFL's 50th anniversary in 1969, Unitas was voted the greatest quarterback of all time. He also was selected at quarterback for the NFL's All-Time team in 2000 by the 36 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.

    "Johnny Unitas is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, better than I was, better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone,'' Sid Luckman, the great Chicago Bears quarterback of the 1940s, once said.

    Unitas was one of the few quarterbacks who called his own plays, an ability traced to his knack for reading an opponent's defense and spotting a weakness, then calling a play to take advantage.

    "To be in Baltimore as a receiver and get to play 12 years with him, I have to classify as the best break I ever got in my career,'' Hall of Famer Raymond Berry said. "The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the football, scoring points and winning.''

    John Mackey, the Colts' tight end during the Unitas years, once said of his teammate, "It's like being in a huddle with God.''

    Unitas was never flamboyant or boastful -- yet No. 19 always seemed to get the job done thoroughly and quietly.

    "A man never gets to this station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed and prodded to do better,'' Unitas said at his induction into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1979. "I want to be honest with you: The players I played with and the coaches I had ... they are directly responsible for my being here. I want you all to remember that. I always will.''

    The long list of accomplishments was quite a reversal of fortune for a player who hitchhiked home from his first NFL training camp after the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him in 1955. He spent that season playing semipro football on rock- and glass-covered fields in Pittsburgh for $6 a game and working as a piledriver at a construction site.

    The Colts signed him the following season after getting tipped to his ability in a most unusual way.

    "Unitas was signed after we received a letter from a fan telling us there was a player in Bloomfield deserving a chance,'' former Colts coach Weeb Ewbank recalled a few years later. "I always accused Johnny of writing it.''

    Unitas became a backup quarterback and made his debut in the fourth game of the 1956 season. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. It got worse as Unitas fumbled on his next two possessions.

    Fortunately, however, the Colts' other backup had opted for law school and Unitas was able to start the next game, when Baltimore beat the Green Bay Packers 28-21. A week later, the Colts upset the Cleveland Browns, and Unitas had earned himself a job.

    He remained revered in Baltimore long after his retirement. He often watched Baltimore Ravens' games from the sidelines, and always received cheers when his face was displayed on the scoreboard.

    "I don't have many heroes. Very plain and simply, Johnny Unitas was one of my heroes,'' Ravens senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome said. "When you think of Baltimore, you think of Johnny Unitas.''

    Unitas was born in Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, and was only 4 when his father, who had a small coal delivery business, died of pneumonia. His mother went to night school to become a bookkeeper to support her four children.

    Unitas later said he learned more about courage from his mother than any coach.

    Unitas didn't really look like a football player. At 6-foot-1, just under 200 pounds, his body was that of an everyday person -- except for the scars, bumps and bruises.

    "What made him the greatest quarterback of all time wasn't his arm or his size, it was what was inside his stomach,'' said Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who worked with the Colts in Unitas' final years on the team. "I've always said the purest definition of leadership was watching Johnny Unitas get off the team bus.''

    Unitas' most noticeable malady was a curved right arm, evidence of the thousands of passes he threw. His worst injury was a torn Achilles tendon, but he also had broken ribs, a punctured lung and knee injuries.

    Unitas' brightest moment probably came in the 1958 championship game against the New York Giants, a match that was called "the greatest football game ever played'' for years afterward.

    With 90 seconds left, Unitas completed four passes, taking the Colts to the 20-yard line to tie the game on a field goal. He then engineered an 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown.

    "The drama came from the championship setting rather than the game itself, until we came down to tie it in the final seconds. And then it became the first playoff ever to go to sudden death, and you can't have much more drama than that,'' Unitas recalled.

    The following year, Baltimore beat the Giants 31-16 in the championship game. Unitas ran for one touchdown and passed for two others, completing 18 of 29 passes, good for 264 yards. For the season he set an NFL record by throwing 32 touchdown passes, and was named the league's outstanding player.

    His Super Bowl victory came in 1971, a 16-13 victory over Dallas in which he played sparingly. He also played in the 1969 Super Bowl, a shocking 16-7 loss to Joe Namath and the New York Jets.

    Unitas' enormous talent and ability, combined with his penchant for taking command in the huddle, caused some players to view him as overly cocky and arrogant.

    Unitas called it confidence.

    "There's a big difference between confidence and conceit. To me, conceit is bragging about yourself. Being confident means you believe you can get the job done, but you know you can't get your job done unless you also have the confidence that the other guys are going to get their jobs done too. Without them, I'm nothing,'' he said.

    Some of that confidence was apparent in his freshman year of college at Louisville. He threw for more than 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns in his first two years, earning the nickname "Mr. Football'' from local sports writers.

    The Steelers drafted him in the ninth round, but he saw little action in the preseason and was cut just before the season-opener. Unitas said he harbored no ill feelings.

    "How could I?'' he asked. "It was the best thing that ever happened to me.''

    Unitas played his final season for the San Diego Chargers, and his 30-yard completion to Mike Garrett against Cincinnati on Sept. 30 put him over the 40,000-yard mark.

    His influence on the game lasted long after his retirement. He served as a tutor to Louisville quarterback Chris Redman, who received his first NFL start last week with the Ravens.

    "I believe he's one of the main reasons I'm an NFL starting quarterback,'' Redman said. "He had such an impact on me. I'll miss him so much.''

    Unitas is survived by wife Sandra; sons John Jr., Kenneth, Robert, Christopher, Joe and Chad; and daughters Janice Ann Unitas-DeNittis and Paige Unitas. His first wife, Dorothy Jean Unitas, died in May.

    Services were not immediately announced.