Joe Theismann

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Thursday, September 12
No one looked, played like Unitas

By Joe Theismann
Special to

As a kid growing up in New Jersey, I idolized two athletes -- Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath. In fact, I had a picture of Unitas hanging on my bedroom wall. And when I was in high school, I wore black hightops like Johnny did.

Unitas was a true NFL icon, one who had a unique style. With his shoulders somewhat slumped, Johnny was always the tactician and was a master of the play-action fake and the timing of his releases.

Watching Unitas was like watching Arnold Palmer swing a golf club. Nobody has a swing like Arnold, and no one dropped back and delivered the football like Unitas. He was distinctive, efficient and great at what he did.

In later years, I had an opportunity to get to know John. At first, it was tough to say anything to him. Out of respect and awe, I sort of sat there with a stupid stare on my face. But I saw him at autograph sessions and went out to dinner with him, and I used to love to listen to the stories.

While I think Joe Montana is the greatest quarterback ever, Unitas is certainly near the top. The game has changed and become much more statistically oriented. Although numbers are important, championships are my main criteria for a great quarterback. Johnny had both.

Unitas played in an era when he called his own plays. But times were different; the defenses weren't as complex as they are now. Still, Unitas' greatness shouldn't suffer. To fairly evaluate a player, you can look at the time in which he played. And in the context of his time, there was no one better than Johnny Unitas.

Former NFL quarterback Joe Theismann is an NFL analyst on ESPN Sunday Night Football.

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