|Wednesday, September 11
Updated: September 15, 12:04 PM ET
With Unitas' death, a generation loses a hero
By Len Pasquarelli
There was no lack of irony that it was a heart attack that felled Johnny Unitas on Wednesday afternoon at the age of 69.
The Hall of Fame quarterback was, after all, a player with enough heart to fill the chest cavities of an entire roster. He was a player who only lost a game when the scoreboard clock ran out and robbed him of those few more precious seconds in which to author another game-winning two-minute drill. Unitas was a guy who, through guile and grit, often willed the Baltimore Colts to victory.
"He simply refused to lose," said Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry, the favorite target of Unitas for so many seasons, himself a man who overcame a shortage of athletic skills. "You pretty much had to drive the stake through his heart if you were going to beat him."
He laughed when a visitor suggested that if one could enact some sort of Vulcan mind meld, and transfer all the football acumen stored in his gray matter to the brain of first-year starter Chris Redman, the Ravens would have themselves one heck of a young quarterback.
Laughed, mind you, but didn't disagree.
It was part of the Unitas persona, of course, that he be known as clever and wily and all the other adjectives now attached to lead-footed guys with very little arm strength. Then again, Unitas was smarter than everybody else, or so it seemed to those who played with or against him.
"He was always a step ahead of you," said Hall of Fame middle linebacker Sam Huff, who found himself many times staring across the line at Unitas from his middle linebacker spot on the New York Giants defense. "And if he wasn't, you figured that he was anyway, because he usually knew what you were doing ... and what he was going to do to you."
A skinny kid who grew up in the Mount Washington section of Pittsburgh, he wasn't the progenitor of the seemingly endless line of great quarterbacks from Western Pennsylvania, but Unitas certainly fit into the bloodline. He was, and there is no greater accolade, a consummate Pittsburgh guy. At the University of Louisville, where he enrolled because he failed some entrance exams at bigger colleges, he started as a freshman.
What people forget about Unitas, and where my own fixation is based, is that he was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 (the transaction in the Pittsburgh Press on Sept. 6 of that year identified him as "Jack" Unitas) because he wasn't versatile enough to fill the team's No. 3 quarterback role.
Few franchises carried three quarterbacks on the roster then -- the man who beat him out for the spot behind Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda was Vic Eaton, who could punt, and play defensive back in a pinch -- and Steelers coach Walt Kiesling never allowed Unitas off the bench in preseason.
Short of money, and some claimed talent as well, Unitas spent 1955 playing semi-pro football for the Bloomfield Rams. I grew up in Bloomfield, about two blocks from Dean's Field, the semi-garbage dump that doubled as the local recreation center, and baseball and football field.
Years later the city, in its infinite wisdom, laid an AstroTurf surface over Dean's Field. Years later, too, as I was coaching the junior high team at St. Joseph's School, a kid named Dan Marino played a couple games at Dean's Field as part of the Catholic League schedule. But in the mid-1950s, before AstroTurf was even on the drawing board, Dean's Field was a rutted pile of sand and rubble. Dig too deep with your cleats and you usually unearthed a soda bottle, or at least the cap from one.
For six bucks a game, plus the trolley fare from Mount Washington, Unitas played for the Bloomfield Rams, but he didn't always play quarterback. The coach of the Rams at the time was Charles "Bear" Rodgers, a guy who was about as wide as he was tall, but he fancied himself a quarterback. Rodgers didn't own a pair of cleats, so he played in wing-tips, and ordered Unitas to play defensive back. A few games into the season, Rodgers conceded that the young Unitas was the superior passer, and so demoted himself to No. 2.
I was five years old when Unitas played in Bloomfield, and only know of his tenure there through my father and my uncles, who saw him play. My first memory of Unitas, like all of the fifty-something football fans who lost a hero Wednesday, was the classic 1958 NFL championship game.
The Colts' overtime victory against the Giants is the game that launched football into the country's consciousness. And it was Unitas who made that game one of the most significant ever contested. At eight years old, I sat mesmerized in front of the grainy black-and-white picture and watched as Unitas orchestrated a masterful two-minute march, throwing time and again to the slew-footed Berry, to tie the game in regulation.
It was running back Alan Ameche, who scored off right tackle on a third-and-goal from the 1-yard line, who won the game for the Colts. Or, more accurately, who scored the winning touchdown. The game itself, that was pure Unitas, and I still have the play-by-play of the Colts' final two drives on a bookshelf two feet from my desk.
"That was kind of the beginning of the Unitas legend," Colts coach Weeb Ewbank recalled years later. "The game made Unitas famous and it made the NFL a household thing."
While I watched the genesis of the Unitas magic on television, I was there at Three Rivers Stadium the afternoon of Oct. 7, 1973, for the conclusion of the Unitas Magic Show. A Pittsburgh defense just one year removed from the start of its dynasty run savaged Unitas in the first half. My recollection was that he was sacked five or six times. He was old. He was tired, and playing on a bad ankle for a bad San Diego Chargers team.
To Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood, to Dwight White and Ernie Holmes, he was like chum in the water.
Bloodied and bowed does not even begin to describe Unitas' condition as he limped off the field at halftime. In an act of mercy, Chargers coach Harland Svare yanked Unitas at halftime, replacing him with a rookie by the name of Dan Fouts. You knew Unitas was done because he didn't fight the demotion, and he never started another game.
A few years ago, when the Steelers were considering signing Marino after he had been released by the Miami Dolphins, owner Dan Rooney cited that 1973 game in which Unitas was so brutally mistreated as a reason for not making the move.
It was a good call by Rooney, because no great player should go out like Unitas did that day. Then again, Unitas had zero regrets, few apologies for trying to bleed one more season out of a game he loved.
Throughout much of Wednesday afternoon, friends and radio talk show hosts called and all wanted to know where Unitas ranked in the pantheon of great NFL quarterbacks. It is, I reiterated, impossible to compare players across generations.
This much I know: In any era, John Unitas would have succeeded because, long before anyone else knew it, he realized that smarts was more essential to the position than arm strength. He knew, with surgical precision, how to carve a defense. He knew how to win.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.