All leadership conversations lead to Unitas

In the NFL, history has demonstrated, great leaders come in all sizes.

The three things they all have in common?

"A big heart, even bigger balls, and the biggest [work ethic]," said Art Donovan, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle from the old Baltimore Colts, and a man who played with some of the zaniest characters and many of the most elite high-character guys of his era. "That's what sets the great leaders apart in any walk of life. In football, you'd better have 'em all if you want guys to follow your lead."

That triumvirate of convergent rare traits, of course, is most typically defined by, but hardly limited to, the quarterback position. In a sampling of dozens of football people over the past week -- players, coaches, scouts and general managers, past and present -- talking about critical leadership qualities inevitably led at some point in those conversations to a discussion of quarterbacks.

It is, by nature, the position that most demands the ability to lead and that also provides the most opportunities for doing so. Not surprisingly, the names most often mentioned as great quarterback leaders over a span of NFL eras -- Joe Montana, Otto Graham, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin -- were the names one might expect to be raised in any such forum.

And so was the man most often cited: Johnny Unitas.

In his excellent new biography, "Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas," which will be available in bookstores next month, author Tom Callahan deconstructs myth. He instead crafts the story of a man with relatively modest physical attributes but who was also imbued with natural leadership traits. Unitas might not have been the most charismatic figure, but as Donovan, his former Colts teammate noted, he possessed all three things you need to have others follow you.

"He pretty much rewrote the book on [playing quarterback] and he defined being a leader," said former Colts wide receiver Raymond Berry.

And so in the pantheon of great leaders, at least those who have played in the NFL since it became more than just a mom-and-pop operation, Unitas might occupy the seat at the front of the class. But it isn't as if he is unchallenged for the top rung of the leadership depth chart. Nor are the contenders limited to just the quarterback position.

Leafing through the lists suggested by interviewees showed more than 100 names and every position, yeah, even kicker (erstwhile placement man George Blanda, perhaps even better known for his clutch field goals than his play at quarterback) was represented by at least one entry, as were players from virtually every era. The two positions most often noted, however, were quarterback and middle linebacker.

"You take guys like [Dick] Butkus and Ray Nitschke, or more recently, Jack Lambert or Mike Singletary … those [were] great players and great leaders," said current Jacksonville middle 'backer Mike Peterson. "Guys rallied up around them. I don't know how vocal they were, but they made plays that got people excited. And the name of the game is making big plays at big moments."

Not necessarily signature plays, mind you, but big plays. There is a difference. Of the several people who noted Walter Payton as one of the game's great leaders, none could recall one run that set him apart. But he authored so many tough runs -- "Some of his best runs came when he somehow turned a two-yard loss into a three-yard gain," former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon once noted -- that his heroic efforts, coupled with his work ethic, certainly inspired teammates.

Indeed, some players' legacies as noted leaders were signaled not by a Kodak snippet but by a montage.

It would be difficult, for instance, to rate one of Reggie White's 198 career sacks as the best of the bunch. But so many of those sacks came at critical junctures of games that, as a body of work, they are remarkable. Just as remarkable as White's brilliance on the field, though, was his pied-piper aura away from it. And that definitely contributed to his position as one of the great leaders in the modern era of the game.

Football is a game in which men are defined, for sure, by deeds. But leaders, at least those who command the kind of respect that would have teammates follow them blindly into any challenge, tend to be defined even more by the totality of their impact on others.

"Those kinds of guys," said Butkus, "don't come down the pike too often."

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click hereInsider.