Johnny U leaves mark in '58 title game
By Larry Schwartz
Special to ESPN.com
"Life is very simple to me. It's either black or it's white. There's not too many gray areas."
-- Johnny Unitas, on ESPN's SportsCentury show (Friday, June 11, 10:30 p.m. ET).
Unitas, whose passing led the Baltimore Colts to victory in "The Greatest Game Ever Played," was voted No. 32 among North American athletes of the 20th century by SportsCentury's distinguished 48-person panel.
Dec. 28, 1958 -- Two history-making drives turned Johnny Unitas into a legend at 25 and helped transform pro football into the most popular television sport of the latter half of the 20th century. And he accomplished this in the House That Ruth Built, no less.
|In the '58 title game, Johnny Unitas helped launch professional football into the mainstream.|
In the nationally televised NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium, the Colts trailed the New York Giants 17-14 when they regained possession on their own 14 with 1:56 left. After two incompletions, Unitas hit Lenny Moore for 11 yards and a first down at the 25.
Then, after misfiring on a bomb, he coolly connected three consecutive times to his favorite receiver, Raymond Berry. A 25-yard completion put the ball at midfield. A 15-yarder and then a 22-yarder brought the ball to the Giants' 13, setting up Steve Myhra's game-tying 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left.
In the first overtime championship game in NFL history, Unitas continued to carve up the Giants. Taking over on his own 20, he twice completed third-and-long passes to keep the drive going. When he saw Giants middle linebacker Sam Huff move over to help out on Berry, he audibled to fullback Alan Ameche, who ran 22 yards up the middle to the Giants' 20. Two more completions from Unitas, who was 26 of 40 for 349 yards in the game, brought the ball to the 1.
Finally, on the 13th play of the drive, Ameche bulled over to give the Colts a 23-17 victory.
Odds and ends
Unitas grew up in a working-class section of Pittsburgh. His work ethic came from his Lithuanian-born mother Helen.
As a sophomore at Louisville in 1952, Unitas had probably his best game, completing 17-of-22 passes, three for touchdowns, in beating Florida State 41-14.
Cut before the 1955 season by the Pittsburgh Steelers after being a ninth-round draft choice, Unitas worked construction and played for the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game in the semipro Greater Pittsburgh League. Late that year, the Colts received a letter from a fan urging them to take a look at Unitas. Coach Weeb Ewbank did, and Unitas was signed in 1956.
After winning that 1958 NFL championship game, Unitas turned down $750 in fees for TV appearances scheduled for that night and the following morning so he could be with the team on the trip back to Baltimore.
He is the only quarterback to lead the NFL in touchdown passes four straight seasons (1957-60).
In the Colts' 16-7 loss to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III in 1969, Unitas, who had been sidelined most of the season with a chronic elbow injury, did not enter the game until late in the third quarter with Baltimore trailing 13-0.
No NFL quarterback has ever approached Unitas' record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games. The second longest streak is 30, by Miami's Dan Marino (1985-87).
Unitas threw four touchdown passes in a game 17 times.
"You don't arrive as a quarterback," Unitas said, "until you can tell the coach to go to hell."
In a poll conducted by the NFL in 1969, Unitas was named the league's greatest player of its first 50 years.
Unitas, at 39, was sold to the San Diego Chargers for $150,000 on Jan. 22, 1973. He received $250,000, double his Colts' salary. He only played five games for the Chargers, was 1-3 as a starter and completed just 34-of-76 passes for 471 yards and three touchdowns with seven interceptions.
Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on July 28, 1979.
Business life after football was not as successful for Unitas, who incurred losses with bowling alleys in the 1960s, a Florida land deal in the 1970s, and a restaurant in the 1980s.
Because he handicapped pro games for a gambling publication, the NFL forced the Colts to end Unitas' special consultancy with the team. Unitas continued to pick games.
In 1991, Unitas filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11. He was a producer of printed circuit boards for computers, cars and telecommunications equipment.
Unitas has had both knees replaced, and in 1993 he needed coronary bypass surgery after suffering a near fatal heart attack.
When asked what it was like to play with Unitas, tight end John Mackey said, "It's like being in the huddle with God."