The United States recently commemorated the 20th anniversary of the horrific 9/11/2001 terrorist attacks, but a much smaller group of devoted Baltimore football fans remember 9/11/2002 for another tragic and more personal loss. It was the untimely death of one man, not from the actions of terrorists but a heart attacked suffered during a workout. That was the day we lost John Unitas at the age of 69, the legend who, in my humble opinion, is the most important athlete in the history of Baltimore sports.
That may seem like quite a statement given the rich sports history of Charm City, but I will make my case for your consideration (and, I am confident, your agreement).
Most fans who are baby boomers like me grew up in an era where it was generally assumed that Unitas was the greatest quarterback to ever play pro football, surpassing predecessors like Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, and Otto Graham. Subsequent generations have anointed Unitas’ successors Joe Montana, then Tom Brady, with GOAT status. The purpose of this column is not to wade into that debate, but I will make a couple of points regarding it.
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
For those who look at numbers, on the surface Montana’s, Brady’s, and those of many other quarterbacks of recent years surpass and even dwarf the ones Unitas compiled, as his greatly surpassed those of Baugh and Graham. Fans immersed in the low-risk frequent passing culture of today’s NFL would be horrified to see that Unitas had four seasons where he threw more then 20 interceptions, something neither Montana nor Brady ever came close to doing once. They would be unimpressed with Unitas’ career high of 3,481 yards passing in 1963, a total Montana surpassed six times and Brady has so far eclipsed 18 times. This is, of course, much more of a reflection of how much the game itself has changed over generations and not the abilities of any of the quarterbacks mentioned.
At the time of his retirement in 1974, Unitas held most career NFL passing records. One of them, his famous 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass from 1956-60, stood until Drew Brees broke it in 2012. Unitas was a three-time MVP and a three-time champion. He compiled an incredible football resume.
So why is he Baltimore’s most important player (MIP)? How about Brooks Robinson, the face of the Orioles for so long and one of the greatest third basemen ever? Where is Frank Robinson, who came over from Cincinnati in 1966 and taught the competitive Orioles how to be champions, leading them to four World Series in his six seasons in Baltimore? Have I forgotten Cal Ripken, who is often credited with saving baseball in 1995 when he broke Lou Gehrig’s unbreakable iron man streak? Back to football, how about Ray Lewis, the leader of one of the greatest defenses ever for the 2000 champion Ravens and the emotional leader of the 2012 champs?
Well, voice in my head, these are all worthy choices and have made a huge impact on their teams and the city of Baltimore.
Unitas, however, was the first. It was his poise, his leadership, his amazing clutch play, that led the Colts to the city’s first major league championship on December 28, 1958 in “The Greatest Game Ever Played” (it wasn’t) against the NY Giants. His “riverboat gambler” cool transfixed the nation and made this game the Most Important Game Every Played. The NFL had been gradually making inroads into baseball’s stranglehold as America’s Pastime throughout the 1950’s, but that game led to an explosion of interest in pro football, and a leap in the level of prestige enjoyed by the city of Baltimore.
None of that happens without John Unitas.
To prove it was no fluke, Unitas led the Colts to the championship again in 1959, and fought it out with Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers throughout most of the 1960’s.
Even more importantly, however, was the fact that John Unitas WAS Baltimore. Many of you are familiar with his story. He grew up in a rough Catholic neighborhood, his dad died when John was five years old, and life was hard. He was a successful high school quarterback, but he was skinny and awkward and unwanted by major colleges. He wound up at Louisville, far from the major football school Lamar Jackson would play at almost 60 years later and was drafted by the Steelers. Unitas was cut in camp (Exhibit A of why the Steelers sucked for almost 40 years) and played sandlot ball in Pittsburgh for a few bucks a game. The Colts brought him in to compete for a backup role, then starter George Shaw, an overall #1 pick, got hurt. Unitas’ first career pass was a pick-six. He managed to bounce back from that inauspicious start and the rest, as they say, is history. He was an underdog castoff who made it in a city that often felt like one itself in its collective psyche. There has perhaps never been a better match of an athlete and a city.
Unitas, the quarterback nobody wanted, became the face of the Colts-a roster littered with future Hall of Famers, the face of the city, and the face of the NFL after twice denying the celebrity-laden Giants (Frank Gifford, Y.A. Title, Sam Huff, etc.) a championship.
The late Frank Deford described Unitas’ connection with Baltimore using his customary flowery prose in the eulogy he wrote following Unitas’ passing for Sports Illustrated. Deford was a Baltimore native and he reflected on the wide-ranging impact Unitas had.
“Johnny Unitas was in the prime of his life when he played for the Baltimore Colts and changed a team and a city and a league. Johnny U was an American original, a piece of work like none other, excepting maybe Paul Bunyan and Horatio Alger.”
Did Deford think Unitas was the best QB ever?
“If there were one game scheduled, Earth versus the Klingons, with the fate of the universe on the line, any person with his wits about him would have Johnny U calling the signals in the huddle, up under the center, back in the pocket.”
I like it. No doubt Unitas would find the weakness in the Klingons’ defense and exploit it.
Unitas’ legacy cannot be adequately told with statistics or trophies. Again, I go to Deford’s eulogy to sum it up.
“Ultimately, you see, what he conveyed to his teammates and to Baltimore and to a wider world was the utter faith that he could do it. He could make it work. Somehow, he could win. He would win. It almost didn’t matter when he actually couldn’t. The point was that with Johnny U, it always seemed possible. You so very seldom get that, even with the best of them. Johnny U’s talents were his own. The belief he gave us was his gift.”
Damn I wish I could write that good. I believe it was this aura of hope, of possibility, of confidence, that makes him Baltimore’s MIP. As great and important as both Robinsons, Ripken, and Lewis were, Unitas’ legacy was vital to a city that, according to Deford, possessed an inferiority complex and would go through especially turbulent times through the span of his career.
When Baltimore saw number 19 step on the field, there was always hope something good could happen. May we all seek to leave that kind of legacy behind.
Don’t forget to check me out on Twitter @jimjfootball.
Until next time, remember it’s good to look back as long as you live forward.
Jim Johnson is a passionate sports fan and a proud University of Maryland alum. Prior to joining BSL, Jim wrote about Terps and ACC hoops and football across the Internet, adopting the moniker “The Courtmaster” and becoming a frequent “expert” guest on Bob Haynie’s old WNST show and other sports radio stations across the country. With BSL, Jim previously covered Maryland and the Big Ten. Back with BSL for a second run, Jim will be providing some historical look back articles, with a particular focus on the Ravens / Steelers rivalry.