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Wednesday, September 11
Unitas, the teammate, was larger than life

By Bill Curry
Special to

He was, above all, real.

According to the dictionary the word "legend" implies unverifiable statements reported as historical fact. So Johnny Unitas is the antithesis of legend because everything about him is so documented. It is in the record book.

What he did was so astounding that we don't even feel the need to embellish. His persona was so unvarnished, so blunt, so sincere, that we would betray him if we invented an image. He was, and is, real. He always will be.

I think the thing that makes him so hard to describe, even for those of us who spent years with him in the trenches, is that despite his natural humility, his stoic mien, and his simplicity, he really was larger than life.

The thing that makes him so hard to describe, even for those of us who spent years with him in the trenches, is that despite his natural humility, his stoic mien, and his simplicity, he really was larger than life.

Maybe that's because he lived out the American Dream before our very eyes.

He really was a skinny kid who no one wanted on their team. He really did come from humble beginnings. He really was cut from the then-pathetic Pittsburgh Steelers. He really did play football on glass-strewn fields for $6 a game in Bloomfield, Pa. And folks, he really did personally transform the National Football League from the sandlot to the Great American Obsession.

He was, like all great people, fully present in each moment.

When I reported to the Baltimore Colts in 1967, there was some question as to whether I would make the team. I was nervous, stressed, and fatigued. At one particularly discouraging moment, John and I started down to the practice field for the afternoon session. Nothing in sport matches football training camp two-a-days for discomfort and disgust, and the guy was happy. I said, "How could you be whistling, old man? It's hot out here!" He grinned, "You better enjoy today Billy. You're a long time dead." "What did you say?" I couldn't believe my ears. "You're a long time dead, so why not enjoy every day, every practice? I love football practice."

I listened, knew I had been challenged, and hustled to practice with a new attitude. The next six years were the best of my career.

His consistency was amazing. He had routines that never varied, regardless of our circumstances. He is the only player I ever saw who took a nap in the training room on game day. That was every Sunday. When we were ready to take the field, our defensive captain Freddy Miller always said a few words, then turned to John, who was standing by the door. He always said the same thing. "Talk's cheap -- let's go play." Always.

In the huddle, there was no hesitation. The plays were his calls. The execution was his expectation. Miss your man and he might look you in the eye and simply call the number of the big guy that had just rearranged his nose. No change of expression or tone of voice. We vowed to get the man next time, and did whatever was necessary to do so. We could not bear to let him down.

Opponents were awed and intimidated, even the great ones. Merlin Olson tells of smashing John again and again, then studying him for some sign of pain or submission ... nothing. Then the inevitable touchdown pass, another Colts win, and adversaries who could only shake their heads in wonder.

Once we kicked off, he never changed his facial expression. In a 1970 game with the Bears, he threw three interceptions on his first four passes. He trotted off the field just like he did when he threw touchdown passes. The score in the first quarter was 17-0, Bears. He moved up and down the bench, asking each of us if we were OK, if we needed a draw or a screen on the next series. The last pass of the day was an 80-yard touchdown to John Mackey to win 21-20.

Had you focused a camera on his face, you would have detected nothing new. He expected to do his job.

He was just John Unitas, real man, real winner, and real American hero. God bless you John. We will never forget you.

ESPN College Football analyst Bill Curry coached for 17 years in the college ranks. He played nine NFL seasons with four teams, and was an all-pro center in front of John Unitas for the Colts in 1971 and '72.

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