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The Best There Was
In the annals of sports where in each individual, whether it is basketball, baseball or others, there are those respected by their peers and sports writers from a number of generations who single out one individual as the greatest. In pro football, it’s only fitting that now during the current NFL season, we look back at one person who many consider to be “the best there ever was.” In the storied history of the NFL, even by today’s standards, one individual stands alone to exemplify what sportsmanship, true grit and determination, against overwhelming odds, rose above and reigned for eighteen years as the greatest quarterback to ever play the game . There are many who emphasize that Johnny Unitas was the best. Even today, there are those who feel that Johnny W could command any team, read the complex defensive books of today and literally take the whole game to a new level of excitement, skill and daring.
With his signature flat top haircut, Johnny Unitas has risen to the top of the professional football ranks. Few, if any, sports stories are more dramatic or more complete than the story of Johnny Unitas. He was, after all, a ninth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. Although Unitas was cut before throwing a single pass in a game he was still determined to play. For the rest of the year, Unitas traded his construction job for playing semi-professional football for $6 a game. Then players were invited to play what is commonly known as Iron Man football. This means that he plays both defense and attack. Johnny Unitas excelled in general. But his passing ability eventually caught the eye of other pro scouts.
After the 1955 season, Baltimore Colts head coach Weeb Evbank learned of the “extraordinary prospect” on the Pittsburgh playing fields. Evbank signed Johnny for $17,000 based on team formation. Scheduled strictly as a backup, Unitas got his chance in Game 4 when the Colts’ starter was injured. And, they say, the rest is history! Over the next 18 seasons, “Johnny U” led a record of game-winning feats that remained the standard by which all other quarterbacks were measured. Many of his achievements have remained intact for more than fifty years. In the entire history of the NFL, there has never been another Johnny Wu. Of course, there were others like Bart Starr, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Tom Brady. But it was Johnny Unitas who put the NFL on the map and in the minds of nations.
Without a doubt, his last-second heroics in the 1958 NFL title game, often referred to as “the greatest game ever played,” made Unitas a household name and the legend began. The biggest game between the Colts and the Giants played in front of a national television audience gave Unitas a chance to demonstrate all of his prodigious attributes, confidence, grit, leadership, playmaking genius and passing skills, all without being called out of the playbook by today’s coaches. Just think of Johnny Unitas as a quarterback today. He once told Weeb Evbank to sit back and relax and just enjoy the game. The confidence and determination shown under intense pressure in a collision sport like NFL football just showed the true talents of Johnny Unitas.
As in every age of professional sports it has its way of slowing down one’s once great ability and by 1974 Johnny Unitas had to retire from the game he single handedly brought into the nations living room. A household name that every aspiring football player, especially young quarterbacks, tried to emulate. He always recovered from the injuries that became Unitas’ trademark. A typical incident occurred in 1958, when, after leading Baltimore to the Western Conference title, he was hit by the Packers’ Johnny Seimank in Game 6 and hospitalized with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Four games later, he led the Colts from a 27-7 halftime deficit to a 35-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, a performance he rated better than the celebrated season title game.
Unitas may have been overlooked as a young player, but he was always a strong, confident leader. “Whatever I do,” he said, “I always have a reason.” Even at the end of that championship game, he dismissed Evbank’s instructions to keep the ball on the ground. “We don’t want an interception here,” the coach reminded him during a timeout. Two plays later, inside the 10, Unitas passed to Jim Mucheler for a one. Asked about the risk of an interception, Unitas said, “If I had seen the danger of it, I would have kicked the ball out of bounds. When you know what you’re doing, you don’t get intercepted.” Unitas threw for 32 touchdowns in 1959 and the Colts again defeated the Giants in the title game. In the 31-16 victory, Unitas ran for a touchdown and passed for 264 yards and two scores.
His 3,481 passing yards topped the NFL in 1963. He was league MVP the following season as he led the Colts to an NFL-best 12-2 record and was first in yards per pass attempt (9.26). Winning another MVP in 1967, he had a league-high 58.5 completion percentage while passing for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns in the Colts’ 11-1-2 season. After being injured for most of the 1968 season, Unitas returned to lead the Colts to their only touchdown in a historic Super Bowl III, a 16-7 loss to the New York Jets. Two years later, in the Colts’ 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, he threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to John McKee before suffering an injury late in the first half.
Persistent injuries finally caught up with him and in 1972, the Colts under new coach Don Shula were forced to bench Unitas. The following January, he was traded to the San Diego Chargers, for whom he played just one season before retiring. In his 18-year career, Unitas threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns in 211 games. What made Unitas special, Berry said, “was his uncanny instinct for calling the right play at the right time, his icy composure under fire, his fierce competitiveness and complete disregard for his own safety.” On September 11, 2002, when the rest of the nation was remembering the national tragedy Unitas was working on at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium, when he suffered a fatal heart attack and slipped quietly into history. He was 69 years old. The best that was, is now gone
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