Johnny U. the definitive field general
By Ralph Wiley
Page 2 columnist

No ripple.

He threw a ball with no ripple. Perfect spirals. In a world and from a man of imperfections, perfect spirals. He threw a beautiful ball.

Pete Rozelle noticed first, as did the people of Baltimore. And the defensive grunts in the old, three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust NFL.

There had been quarterbacks of note before Johnny Unitas, but not with his story, none who threw such a beautiful ball, such perfect ropes to such timeless, agile targets at Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore; none who led two drives of such quiet desperation in the game they called the Greatest, in '58 against the Giants in Yankee Stadium; none whose play-passes made Pete Rozelle go, "Hmm." None who better personified pro football, who gave Pete Rozelle something to market -- the field general who led last-minute drives of quiet desperation while stoically throwing balls with no ripple.

Sure, after Johnny U. came Starr, Dawson, Namath, Bradshaw, Staubach, Montana, Marino, Simms, Williams, Young, Elway, Favre, now Brady ... but only Johnny U. threw for 290 TDs and 40,000 yards back when rules didn't favor for the passer, back in the era of Jim Brown, when the third leg of the three-legged stool of Unitas, Brown and Rozelle helped make the NFL what it is, the ultimate platform of men who play a game of quiet desperation ...

***** ***** *****

Happened to be doing a radio show in D.C. with Andy and Steve when the word came in that Johnny U. was dead. In a way, he died back when his right hand began to become useless after the beating he stoically took in the League. He died when he could no longer throw a ball with no ripple. So we talked about how he came out of coal country and went to Louisville, where they later named streets and dorms and statues after him; how he went back to Western Pennsylvania, drafted by the Steelers; how they cut him and sent him home with just bus fare, him and another guy. The other guy became a priest. Johnny U. became the high priest, the Man with the Golden Arm.

Johnny Unitas
Every kid wanted to wear No. 19, sport a crewcut and throw a perfect spiral like Johnny Unitas.
As people from Baltimore began to call in, I thought of Giants GM Ernie Accorsi, how he could talk for days about Unitas, from knowing him and covering him back when he was a journalist with The Baltimore Sun. Unitas came trundling into Super Bowl III in the fourth quarter with the Colts down 16-0, drove them to their only touchdown, scared Joe Willie to death. Andy remembered Namath wore No. 19 in high school. Because every kid wanted to throw a ball with no ripple, and be like Johnny U., bow-legged, crew cut, hightop fade in high top cleats, parka thrown over the shoulder pads ...

Mythic. Jim Brown. Johnny U. Pretty much ball game, right there.

Accorsi said somebody asked Unitas after Super Bowl III if could have won that game, if only Don Shula had put him in for Earl Morrall at halftime. "Wouldn't have taken that long," Unitas said.

There are a million football stories about Johnny Unitas; today and for the new few days, you'll hear them. What intrigued me were the non-ball stories from people in the Baltimore-Washington corridor who lit up the phone bank at the radio show once the news came over that Johnny U. was dead. At least, he was supposed to be dead. With Johnny U., you never know. He'd been dead before.

One guy, a graying skycap at the old Washington National airport, recalled a co-worker of his, a guy known to tie one on every now and then, came up to a group of them one day and said, "Fellas, want you to meet a friend of mine right here -- Johnny Unitas." "Haw-haw," said the fellas. Until they turned and saw him offer that rare bashful smile. "Hey, guys." From Johnny U.! To mark the occasion, they all tied one on. Guy remembered it like yesterday.

A man named Patrick called in and said his father was such a big Baltimore Colts' and Johnny U. fan that when Jim O'Brien's field goal went through and the Colts won Supe V, his dad jumped so high his head crashed into the ceiling light and broke it -- the light, not his head -- although his head was cut open to the white meat.

Johnny Unitas
Unitas displayed the ultimate cool ... even when things around him turned desperate.
He was laughing as they stitched him up. Just made him closer to Johnny U., that's all. Made him more like him. Forged the bond.

"To my dad, taking us to the Golden Arm restaurant was fine dining," Patrick said. And the old man took him and his brothers fairly often. Once Johnny U. himself was there, at his namesake restaurant, and he autographed a ball for Patrick and his brothers. Once they got back to the table, the youngest brother noticed he couldn't make out Johnny U.'s cursive hand and began to cry; he couldn't read the mark of a man who meant so much to his father. So Johnny U. came over and printed his name for the kid.

So don't be bringing Baltimoreans no Montana or Elway. We say that in the broken way Johnny U. might have said it. Everything about him was broken but his spirit and spirals. Both were tight.

No ripple. Not in ball. Not in man.

For Baltimoreans, there's only one quarterback even now.

As steadfast for him as he was for their "C-O-L-T-S. Colts!"

That scene in "Diner"? Real. It was Unitas' name that sold it.

Johnny Unitas
Unitas insisted that he could have changed the outcome of Super Bowl III if he'd entered the game earlier.
Doesn't matter that he tore that muscle in his arm and was never the same, that he was banished to San Diego, that the Golden Arm restaurant eventually closed, that he was no good at business and went belly-up several times trying to make it, that he had failed marriages, that slowly his battered body gave out until he couldn't grip a football, much less throw it with no ripple. He never gave in.

He said he'd pay back what he owed, not like these business CEOs who build mansions and have off-shore accounts that bankruptcy courts can't touch, and who then make smug faces at the crushed lives of little people they screw. Unitas, on the other hand, was the field general, the on-field CEO who died a thousand little deaths so that his shareholders' hopes might live. There was nothing showy or Hollywood or con about him. He was like the Popeye of QBs.

He was what he was.

There's a statue of him outside the stadium in Baltimore, even though his Colts never played in that building. Never followed the Colts to Indianapolis. He was a Baltimore Colt. The Baltimore Colt.

Beyond this regional identification, he was the field general. Masterfully leading drives of quiet desperation with the clock winding down. A football equation unto himself, one Pete Rozelle watched in the '58 title game and said, "We're in business, boys."

I'm talking no ripple at all. Look back at the film. He was the granddaddy of them all, as far as throwing the seed goes, and as far as being the stoic field general masterfully directing last-minute drives of quiet desperation goes. His character made it more than a game. You could tell it was more than a game, they way Johnny U. played it. It was the defined reason and form of a man's whole life.

Johnny Unitas
Unitas threw TD passes in 47 consecutive games -- a record that still stands in this pass-happy era.
Without it, he was nothing. With it, he personified everything.

Every QB in the NFL should wear a No. 19 patch this season, and if Tags can't see it, it's because he was an old basketball player at Georgetown. But he sees it. Sure. Everybody saw Johnny U.

That's it, isn't it? Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Otto Graham, all superb QBs, no doubt. But they didn't make it to TV. Was TV made Johnny U; Johnny U., Pete, Jim and TV made the NFL.

Johnny U. would have played the same way in front of 500 homeless people with one pair of binoculars between them.

You knew that, if you were from Baltimore. That came across.

Oliver Stone put him in "On Any Given Sunday" as a head coach. Didn't give him any lines. Johnny was a do guy, not a say guy.

Legacy? The NFL itself.

With Jim Brown and Pete Rozelle, the whole League.

No? Tell you what. Wake me up when somebody throws a TD pass in 47 consecutive games. Or, more accurately, dig me up when they do.

Ralph Wiley spent nine years at Sports Illustrated and wrote 28 cover stories on celebrity athletes. He is the author of several books, including "Best Seat in the House," with Spike Lee, "Born to Play: The Eric Davis Story," and "Serenity, A Boxing Memoir."



Ralph Wiley Archive

Wiley: Venus can do whatever she wants

Wiley: My 'Perilous Travels with Charlie'

Wiley: 'Undisputed' not far away from 'Raging Bull'

Wiley: Lay off the hot dogs

Wiley: Hold the phonies

Email story
Most sent
Print story

espn Page 2 index