No. 19: 1933–2002

By Darrell Carter

There aren’t many heroes in this mortal world, unless you grew up in Baltimore or became an avid football fan during the late 1950’s through early 1970’s. One man stood above them all in the sports world--not only a great football player, but a mountain of a man: John Constantine Unitas.

In 1955, Johnny Unitas was drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers with the 102nd pick in the National Football League annual draft. The former University of Louisville quarterback was cut before the season started. Then, in 1956, he was signed as a free-agent backup for the Baltimore Colts for $7,000. Several games into the season, the first-string quarterback went down to injuries, and Unitas replaced him. The rest is, as they say, history. As a child, like hundreds of thousands of other Baltimore fans, I remember well the thrill of watching him throw passes to John Mackey.

In 1958, the “the greatest game ever played” placed Baltimore and the NFL on the sports map. The match, between the New York Giants and the Colts at Yankee Stadium, culminated with a 23-17 victory for the Baltimore Colts and rights to the NFL Championship. The Colts repeated this feat the following year again versus the same Giants. Another great moment for the old Colts was in 1971, when Unitas threw a touchdown in Super Bowl V against Dallas, spearheading Baltimore’s victory.

Known as “The Golden Arm,” Johnny Unitas held most of football’s records until he retired in 1973. One record still stands: his 47-consecutive games with a touchdown from 1956-1960. The Colts traded Unitas in 1973 to the San Diego Chargers, in which he retired at the end of the season. He was voted into the NFL’s Hall of Fame in 1979; was selected NFL Player of the Year in ’57, ’59, ’64, and ’67; named player of the decade for the 1960’s; named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary Team; led the league in passing yardage four times; and many other “firsts,” “mosts,” and “bests.”

John Unitas served his sport with elegance and great appreciation for the art of the game. His hunched shoulders, crew-cut hair, bowlegged physique, and high top shoes became the talk of the league, though his true signature echoed on the playing field, Sunday after Sunday.

I had the honor of meeting him on several occasions, and can say that he was a gentle man, as well as a gentleman.

When the former Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens, he embraced the team as if they were his own. In contrast, he refused to participate in activities related to the Baltimore Colts after his old team left town in the middle of the night and headed for Indianapolis. This contrast showed his allegiance to Baltimore, and his love for the game and for good sportsmanship.

On September 11, 2002, Johnny Unitas was exercising at the Kernan Physical Therapy Center in Timonium, Maryland (Baltimore County), when he collapsed and suffered a heart attack and expired. He was 69 years old. He had had one other episode with heart problems in 1993, when he had emergency triple bypass surgery.

The National Football League honored Mr. Unitas with a moment of silence at all stadiums on the Sunday subsequent to his death. Now the local sports public is calling for Baltimore’s Ravens Stadium (formerly PSI Net Stadium) to be named John Unitas Memorial Stadium.

Johnny Unitas is survived by his wife, Sandra Unitas, and six sons and two daughters.

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This story was published on October 2, 2002.