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Johnny Unitas: Simply, the best - Former Colts QB was the 'ultimate triggerman'
The Dallas Morning News ^ | September 12, 2002 | Rick Gosselin

Posted on 09/12/2002 6:25:13 AM PDT by MeekOneGOP

Johnny Unitas: Simply, the best

Former Colts QB was the 'ultimate triggerman'


If you wanted to build the perfect quarterback for your NFL team, you'd take the mind of Joe Montana, the body of John Elway, the rifle arm of Brett Favre, the feathery touch of Dan Marino and the swagger of Joe Namath.

Or you could just hand the football to Johnny Unitas.

The greatest quarterback ever to take an NFL snap died Wednesday of a heart attack. He was 69.

More than 40 years ago, Unitas gave the NFL its definition for how the position should be played and it's still the standard by which all quarterbacks are measured today.

"He was the ultimate triggerman," said Cincinnati Bengals coach Dick LeBeau, who has spent the last 44 years of his life in the NFL as a player and then coach.

Johnny U broke in with the Baltimore Colts in 1956, when the games were played on the ground. The league's best players then were its running backs Joe "The Jet" Perry, Alan "The Horse" Ameche, Ollie Matson and Rick Casares. Teams ran the ball and played defense, ran the ball and played defense.

Otto Graham won an NFL passing title at Cleveland in 1955 throwing the ball just 185 times. Then Unitas arrived and the bar was suddenly, shockingly raised. He became the first quarterback to pass for 30 touchdowns in 1959 and the first to pass for 3,000 yards in 1960.

More important, Unitas won.

In what has been billed historically as the greatest game ever played, Unitas passed for 349 yards and a touchdown in Baltimore's 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game the first overtime game in NFL history.

Unitas captured back-to-back NFL titles in 1958-59 as a young quarterback and won a Super Bowl in the 1970 season as an old one. He retired from the game as the most prolific passer in NFL history with 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns.

Unitas retired in 1973 but hasn't been pushed very far down those lists in the 28 years he's been away. Despite the explosion in offensive football and passing statistics in the 1980s and '90s, Unitas still ranks fifth on the all-time touchdown list and 11th in yards.

Unitas wasn't a product of a system like today's quarterbacks. He didn't benefit from the Run-and-Shoot like Warren Moon or the West Coast offense like Montana and Steve Young.

Johnny Unitas (left) makes a pass during a game against the Cowboys.

Unitas was the system. He called his own plays, at times even drawing them up in the dirt. And he didn't have five receivers and five options in a pattern like a Kurt Warner does in today's game.

Unitas had two receivers running downfield patterns in the 1950s and three in most patterns in the 1960s. If his receivers weren't open, it was his responsibility to create daylight for them with laser-like spirals. His job was to complete passes, no matter how tight the coverage.

Unitas led the NFL in touchdown passes four years in a row from 1957-60 a record that still stands. He authored another record that may stand forever throwing touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games. That's football's equivalent to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. The next-best streak in league history was 31 games by Marino.

"If you know John Unitas, he didn't throw a single touchdown pass in a 50-0 game just to keep the record," said New York Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi. "Every pass he threw and every play he made was designed to do one thing win a football game."

Unitas went to 10 Pro Bowls and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979. He was named the lone quarterback on the NFL's 50th anniversary team in 1969 and one of four quarterbacks on the NFL's 75th anniversary team in 1994.

With his crew cut, sloped-shoulders and black high-tops, Unitas single-handedly ushered in the quarterback as the premier player in football and put the position atop the salary chart. The Roger Staubachs, Terry Bradshaws, Joe Montanas, Brett Favres and Kurt Warners all owe him a debt of gratitude.

No. 19 was the best.

Rick Gosselin ranks the top five quarterbacks of all-time:
Rank Quarterback Comment
1 Johnny Unitas Perfect blend of passer, leader, winner
2 Joe Montana Best big-game quarterback in history
3 Otto Graham Played in 10 championship games in 10 years
4 Dan Marino Most prolific passer in NFL history
5 John Elway Could beat you with his arm, legs or heart


Born: May 7, 1933, Pittsburgh

Died: Sept. 11, 2002, Baltimore

Height/weight: 6-1, 200

Position: Quarterback, Baltimore Colts (1956-72); San Diego Chargers (1973)

Education: St. Justin's High School (Pittsburgh); graduated from the University of Louisville, 1955

Drafted: Ninth round (102nd overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers (1955). He was cut before the start of the 1955 season and signed as a free agent with the Baltimore Colts in 1956.

Uniform number: 19 (retired by the Colts)


Completed 2,830 passes for 40,239 yards and a record 290 touchdown passes

Threw TD passes in an NFL-record 47 consecutive games

Had three seasons of 3,000 yards or more

Led the Colts to the 1958 and 1959 NFL crowns and a Super Bowl V victory in 1971

NFL Most Valuable Player in 1964, 1967

Player of the Decade for the 1960s

Ten Pro Bowl selections

Inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979

Named the Greatest Player in the First 50 Years of Pro Football

Named to the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team

Online at:

TOPICS: Culture/Society; Editorial; News/Current Events; US: Maryland
KEYWORDS: colts; johnnyunitas; profootball; quarterback
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1 posted on 09/12/2002 6:25:13 AM PDT by MeekOneGOP
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To: maxwell; Constitution Day; Argh; Slip18; aaaDOC; RikaStrom; dubyaismypresident; xsmommy; Gabz; ...
Pretty good article on his career. Just fyi.
2 posted on 09/12/2002 6:29:23 AM PDT by MeekOneGOP
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To: MeeknMing; Joe Montana
Rest in peace No. 19.
3 posted on 09/12/2002 6:35:32 AM PDT by Fred Mertz
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To: MeeknMing
Despite the explosion in offensive football and passing statistics in the 1980s and '90s, Unitas still ranks fifth on the all-time touchdown list and 11th in yards.

Worth noting he played when they had 12 and later 14 game seasons.

4 posted on 09/12/2002 6:40:54 AM PDT by slowry
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To: slowry
And while we are talking about the best, the author of this piece, Rick Gosselin, the DMN NFL beat writer, is no slouch himself.
5 posted on 09/12/2002 6:44:43 AM PDT by Let's Roll
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To: MeeknMing
seems GOD is building HIS fantasy teams
Teddy Ballgame and now Johnny U.

simply the two best in their sport
6 posted on 09/12/2002 6:49:30 AM PDT by cactusSharp
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To: Fred Mertz
Back in the early 60's four of us, including Johnny, spent an evening having dinner and afterwards went to the Jockey Club in DC. When I was first introduced to him, it was just this is "Johnny" and it took me about fifteen minutes to realized he was Johnny Unitas. He was one of the most self-effacing individuals one would ever meet and totally enjoyable. Although that was the only time I met him personally, our common friend would often say the Johnny had asked about me. For me, he was not only a great player but an even greater human being.
7 posted on 09/12/2002 6:58:16 AM PDT by monocle
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To: monocle
Johnny used to own a restaurant called "The Golden Arm". I remember going in there for lunch one day several years ago, and Mr. Golden Arm himself was sitting at a table with what looked like a slew of businessmen. He looked up, gave me a warm smile and a "hello" like I was a special friend.

The greatest quarterback, the nicest guy you would ever want to meet.

Goodbye, #19.

8 posted on 09/12/2002 7:10:01 AM PDT by gramho12
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To: slowry
Worth noting he played when they had 12 and later 14 game seasons.

Also worth noting that his recievers could get bumped all the way down the field, not just 5 yards.

9 posted on 09/12/2002 7:24:47 AM PDT by Northpaw
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To: MeeknMing
Excellent article by the Goose.
Johnny U., simply the best.
God speed.
10 posted on 09/12/2002 7:38:49 AM PDT by dtel
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To: MeeknMing

By John Oehser,

INDIANAPOLIS - Johnny Unitas, a Hall of Fame quarterback who played with the Colts longer than any player in the team's 50-year history, died Wednesday. He was 69.

Unitas died of a heart attack.

Unitas, who had undergone emergency triple by-pass surgery in March 1993, retired in 1973 after 18 NFL seasons, the first 17 of which he spent with the Colts. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and was a member of the NFL's 75th Anniversary Team.

"My family and I, as well as our entire organization, are deeply saddened by Johnny Unitas' sudden death," Colts Owner and Chief Executive Officer Jim Irsay said in statement Wednesday. "He was a hero to so many people, including me. I first met him shortly after my 13th birthday, at the first training camp after my family acquired the team.

"When he was in high school, he was considered by some too small to succeed in football, but over time he became larger than life. Without question, Johnny was the reason that football catapulted to the top of the professional sports world. He became a legend in the NFL.

"He was a leader in so many ways, a man of incredible talent and extraordinary character. Johnny leaves us with many great memories from professional football, and we are all grateful for what he gave us in his lifetime."

Unitas' NFL career was one of the game's legendary stories during the 1950s and 1960s, when the game emerged as a rival to baseball in the country's national sports consciousness. And Unitas, as much as anyone, turned quarterback into the glamour position - perhaps the most glamorous position in sport - that it is today.

Unitas, born in Pittsburgh in May 7, 1933, was four when his father died of pneumonia. His mother went to night school to become a bookkeeper to support four children.

He played collegiately at the University of Louisville, throwing for more than 2,000 yards and 21 touchdowns in an era in which passing was far less prevalent than today.

He was drafted in the ninth round in 1955 by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but played sparingly in the preseason and was released before team's opener.

He hitchhiked home and spent that season playing semi-pro ball in Pittsburgh - for the Bloomfield Rams - while working as a pile driver on a construction site.

The Colts signed him the following season, and he made his NFL debut in the fourth game of the season. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown, and although the Colts lost, Unitas started the next game and the Colts beat the Green Bay Packers.

The next week, he started again. The Colts upset the Cleveland Browns, and Unitas spent much of the next decade and a half revolutionizing the quarterback position - and the league itself.

He directed the Colts to the 1958 and 1959 NFL Championships, and his performance in the 1958 NFL Title game - widely considered perhaps the best and almost certainly the most important game in NFL history - was key to his legend and to turning the game into a national passion.

Unitas, opponents and teammates often said, personified what the quarterback position still represents today: toughness, leadership and confidence.

In the 1958 title game, in which the Colts beat the New York Giants 23-17 in overtime, Unitas completed four passes in the final 90 seconds to set up a field goal that sent the game into the first overtime in NFL history. In overtime, he led an 80-yard drive that fullback Alan Ameche capped with a one-yard run.

The game was nationally televised and the finish - and Unitas' heroics - helped the sport capture the nation's imagination.

Of Unitas, his teammate - Hall of Fame tight end John Mackey - once said, "It's like being in the huddle with God."

After that game, Unitas was asked about a particular play in overtime. With the Colts in Giants territory, Unitas threw a short pass to the sideline. The pass was considered dangerous by some. Had it been intercepted, the Giants defender would have had an easy path to a touchdown. As it was, it gave the Colts a first down at the Giants 1 and set up Ameche's historic touchdown.

Unitas, asked why he threw such a dangerous pass, replied, "If you know what you're doing, you don't get intercepted."

"There's a big difference between confidence and conceit," Unitas said once. "To me, conceit is bragging about yourself. Being confident means you believe you can get the job done, but you know you can't get your job done unless you also have the confidence that the other guys are going to get their jobs done too. Without them, I'm nothing."

Unitas led the Colts to the NFL title the following year, and was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player three times - in 1959, 1964 and 1965. He played in 10 Pro Bowls, a team record, and was named All-Pro in 1958, 1959, 1965 and 1967.

When he retired, he finished his 18-year career as the NFL leader for passes attempted (5,186), completed (2,830), yards gained (40,239), most seasons 3,000 yards (three), most 300-yard games (26) and most touchdown passes (290).

His 22 NFL records at the time included the most consecutive seasons leading the NFL in touchdown passes (four) and most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (57), the latter of which still stands is considered a record on par with Joe Dimaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball.

11 posted on 09/12/2002 7:41:52 AM PDT by Eagle9
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To: MeeknMing
The best quarterbacks come from Pa.
12 posted on 09/12/2002 7:46:05 AM PDT by Tribune7
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To: MeeknMing
The Colts were my team (still are) when I was young, primarily due to Johnny Unitas. He personified the ideal NFL quarterback, regardless of the different eras and game strategies. I'll always remember the Untias to Berry sideline pass, which was almost unstoppable. Untias would have the ball in the air, on it's way, before Berry made his cut to the sideline. The ball would actually be out of bounds, requiring Berry to drag both toes, while leaning forward over the sideline to catch the ball and tuck it in, before he slammed face down, fully extended, into the ground out of bounds. Granted, this may not seem uncommon today, but from the late 1950s through the 1960s, it was a one of the most potent plays in pro football.
13 posted on 09/12/2002 8:39:57 AM PDT by Eagle9
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To: MeeknMing
I had the privilege of attending the "greatest game ever played" in New York. There never was, and never will be, a quarterback and receiver pair the likes of Unitas and Berry. Berry caught twelve passes in that game, including two that kept the "first two-minute drill in history" alive, as the Colts drove for the tying field goal in the closing 1:43 of regular time.

Both those critical catches were works of art like Michael Jordan above the rim. Both times Unitas threw the ball to a point slightly outside the field of play. Both times, Berry planted his feet, fell forwards out of bounds, and caught the ball that arrived just as he fell forward.

There was no defense to a pass like that. Perfectly thrown, perfectly caught, for a perfect result.

I saw almost all of this man's career. To Colt fans, third and 20 with Unitas taking the snap was not a disaster, but an opportunity. As a sports writer once wrote of Brooks Robinson, "He played likie he came down from a higher league."

Sleep well, 19. You done good.

Congressman Billybob

Click for major article on turnover in the House of Representatives: "Til Death Do Us Part."

Click for latest column: "The Star-Spangled Banner, Part II, & More Lies from the Media"

14 posted on 09/12/2002 11:31:22 AM PDT by Congressman Billybob
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Comment #15 Removed by Moderator

To: sartorius
A Big Bump for the Petition!
16 posted on 09/12/2002 12:36:40 PM PDT by jackbill
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To: Tribune7
The best quarterbacks come from Pa.

Specifically a small part of Western Pa.

17 posted on 09/12/2002 12:43:19 PM PDT by jackbill
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To: Congressman Billybob
Thanks for sharing that with us CB !
18 posted on 09/12/2002 2:16:08 PM PDT by MeekOneGOP
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To: sartorius; jackbill
16812. I think this would be a great tribute to Johnny and to Baltimore.

Thanks! I signed it. One of ya'll might want to think about putting that on a thread
by itself. It would get a lot of attention I think?.....
19 posted on 09/12/2002 2:22:02 PM PDT by MeekOneGOP
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To: MeeknMing
bttt. BTW, I was surprised to hear on CNN that he had to file bankruptcy at one point in his life.
20 posted on 09/12/2002 2:27:51 PM PDT by summer
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