If one were to look in the dictionary for the definition of persistence, one might see a photo of Johnny Unitas.
— NFL Classic! (@79_nfl) February 16, 2020
Unitas had a dream of playing professional football as a quarterback.
He was deterred and disregarded a number of times from that goal but he never gave up.
When he finally reached his goal in 1956, Unitas held onto that opportunity for 18 years.
His persistence and dedication to the game helped lead his team to two Super Bowls.
Eventually, the man who was initially overlooked would become a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a hero to kids everywhere.
This is the story of Johnny Unitas.
John Constantine Unitas was born on May 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) May 7, 2017
His father died when Unitas was only five which left his mother to work two jobs and care for the family.
By the time he reached St. Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas had two goals in mind.
He wanted to be a football player and he eventually wanted to play at Notre Dame.
To get there, he had to get through the crucible of Western Pennsylvania high school football.
Unitas wasn’t very big. He was smaller than six feet and about 140 pounds.
However, he played bigger than himself as a halfback and then the quarterback for St. Justin’s.
“He was thin, but he was already throwing a nice ball,” childhood friend and former teammate Ron Petrelli said. “And he was tough. One time he got run out of bounds and pushed into a wall, and he chipped a front tooth. But he kept playing.”
During his junior year, Unitas took over as quarterback when the starter was injured.
He would never look back and played well during his senior year.
As a quarterback, Unitas was known for his funky delivery where he would, on occasion, jump while making a pass, although that was due more to necessity.
“He was a phenomenon,” his cousin Joe Unitas said. “People wanted to come see this skinny, bow legged kid jump up in the air and throw the ball 40 yards. Of course, he was jumping because he couldn’t see over the linemen.”
The St. Justin’s team wasn’t great at the time, but Unitas kept them in games, throwing 22 total touchdown passes during his junior and senior years.
He led with conviction and made sure his teammates were where they needed to be to make plays.
“He had exactly the same mind-set that he would have later [in the pros],” friend and teammate Joe Chilleo said. “When he thought he was right, by gosh, he was right.”
One Dream Denied
As his high school playing career was ending, Unitas wanted to play on the gridiron for the Fighting Irish.
His high school coach was able to set up a tryout with Notre Dame assistant coach Bernie Crimmins and Unitas thought he did well during the session.
To his great dismay, Crimmins chose to pass on Unitas.
“Bernie later told me that he liked John as a prospect, but he knew the fans would run them out of town if they brought in a guy weighing 135 pounds,” said Frank Gitschier, a Louisville assistant coach.
Although he was dejected by not being able to play for his dream school, the University of Pittsburgh offered Unitas a scholarship.
However, when he flunked the entrance exam, the school pulled the scholarship offer.
Fortunately, the University of Louisville reached out to Unitas, although the coaching staff had not seen him play in high school.
At the time, Louisville wasn’t a member of the NCAA and played its games in a high school stadium.
The team didn’t have much of a recruiting budget and Unitas’ name was mentioned to head coach Frank Camp.
Camp was exasperated by the play of his quarterbacks at the time and asked his team if they knew of any good high school quarterbacks.
“I was coaching the freshman team, and this guy on the freshman team had come from Unitas’ league in Pittsburgh and mentioned him, said he was as tough as nails and could throw. That’s how we heard about Unitas, from a kid on the freshman team,” Gitschier said.
With opportunities to play college play disappearing fast, Unitas accepted the offer to play at Louisville.
“We didn’t get him because of any great recruiting coup,” Gitschier said. “We got him because no one else wanted him.”
Unitas Emerges as Louisville’s Starting QB
Unitas arrived at Louisville in 1951 weighing all of 145 pounds on his 6’1” frame.
He was a freshman and normally freshmen weren’t allowed to play at the time.
However, since Louisville wasn’t yet a member of the NCAA, that rule didn’t apply.
During the first few weeks of fall practice, Unitas was outplayed by another freshman, Jerry Nassano, which meant Unitas began the season on the bench.
After a season opening win against Wayne State, the Cardinals were buried by their next three opponents by a combined score of 124-13.
During their fifth game of the year against St. Bonaventure, Louisville was down 19-0 at halftime.
Desperate for a turn around, Camp inserted Unitas into the game for the second half.
Right before their eyes, Unitas played like he was a seasoned veteran and thoroughly shocked his teammates.
He completed 11 consecutive passes including three for touchdowns as the Cardinals raced out to a 21-19 lead.
St. Bonaventure kicked a late field goal to win 22-21, but the Unitas legend was born that day.
“We weren’t going anywhere without him, that’s for sure,” Camp told reporters after the game. “If he keeps throwing the ball like that, he’ll do us a lot of good.”
Two games later, Unitas played well against the University of Houston, a game Louisville entered as 19-point underdogs.
Who’s the greatest athlete who went to any school you’ve graduated from?
I’ll start: Johnny Unitas, University of Louisville. pic.twitter.com/tJ1zRlafgw
— Super 70s Sports (@Super70sSports) April 22, 2022
Late in the fourth quarter of the game, the Cards were leading by seven and had the ball.
They were on their own eight-yard line and were facing the prospect of punting the ball back to the Cougars, who could theoretically tie the game.
Unitas took matters into his own hands on third down and threw a 92-yard touchdown to receiver Babe Ray to seal the contest.
By the end of the season, Unitas had led Louisville to a respectable 5-4 record.
A Disappointing Year in 1952
With Unitas back under center for his sophomore season, Louisville believed they were on their way to a successful 1952 campaign.
The year began well with two wins including one against Florida State.
Then, the bottom fell out and the Cardinals finished the season losing five of their last six games.
Frustration from the losing, and the whispers that school administrators were mulling whether to axe the football program, led to 15 starters leaving the team after the season.
Unitas himself was approached by the University of Indiana coach to come play for him on a full scholarship.
He initially considered it, but Unitas ultimately turned down the offer.
“His attitude was, ‘They (Louisville) wanted me when no one else did, so I’m sticking with them,'” Gitschier said.
Unitas Thrives While Louisville Struggles
For the next two years, things didn’t get much better. The Cardinals were 1-7 in 1953 and 3-6 in 1954.
By then, though, Unitas had gained 40 more pounds and had established himself as a solid college quarterback.
He was also spending time on defense at safety and linebacker.
In four years at Louisville, Unitas completed 247 of 502 passes for 2,912 yards and 27 touchdowns.
His number 16 jersey was eventually retired by the program.
— Louisville FB Recruiting (@ULFBRecruiting) April 10, 2015
Camp had an affinity for his quarterback, especially for sticking around when he could have left.
“Coach Camp fell in love with him,” Gitschier said. “And what wasn’t there to love? John was the first of those lunch-pail quarterbacks to come out of Western Pennsylvania. Later on came Jim Kelly and Dan Marino and Joe Namath and Joe Montana.”
Unitas graduated in the spring of 1955, just months after marrying Dorothy Hoelle, his high school sweetheart.
He then waited for the 1955 NFL Draft to see if he would get a chance to realize his other childhood dream of playing professional football.
A Circuitous Route to the NFL
Unitas was the glue that held the Cardinals together during his time at Louisville.
NFL personnel knew that, but they were still scared off by his lack of size.
“Scouts and coaches knew he was good and recognized that he stood a chance of making it if he ever got a real shot, but they also looked at him, weighing maybe 170 pounds, and said, ‘Where’s he going to go? Who’s going to give him that shot?’” Cardinals teammate Fred Zangaro said.
His hometown Pittsburgh Steelers took a flier on Unitas and drafted him with the 102nd overall selection of the ‘55 draft.
Johnny Unitas – Pittsburgh #Steelers (1955)
The Steelers drafted Unitas in the 9th Round of the 1955 #NFLDraft (102nd overall). He was released before the season started, and signed with the Baltimore Colts the following year.#SteelersNation #SteelersDraft pic.twitter.com/KxyMXtn4wP
— Legends In The Wrong Uniforms (@WrongUnis) April 18, 2022
The problem with that selection was that the Steelers now had four quarterbacks on their roster.
That meant Unitas would not get a shot to prove what he could do.
“Most of the time they acted like I wasn’t there,” he said years later.
Unitas would spend the entire training camp primarily on the sidelines and never saw any action in preseason games despite some in the Pittsburgh organization calling him the best quarterback in camp.
“The coaches would run the quarterbacks through drills, and sometimes the whistle would blow [ending the drill] before John even got a turn,” recalled Art Rooney Sr., son of the Steelers’ owner.
After the final preseason game, the Steelers cut Unitas.
He was dejected at never getting a real shot with Pittsburgh and he also faced the prospect of having no job with a wife and child on the way.
Unitas would spend the next year working in construction and playing for the Bloomfield Rams of the semipro Pittsburgh Steel Bowl Conference.
It didn’t matter that he was only paid $6 per game, Unitas enjoyed the opportunity to compete while playing the game he loved.
“He took over the whole team, basically,” Bloomfield head coach Chuck Rogers said. “He was terrific, did everything, threw the ball all the way across the field on a line.”
In February of 1956, the Baltimore Colts contacted Unitas and invited him for a tryout.
He made his way to Baltimore, impressed the Colts coaches and management, and the team offered him a contract.
Unitas was finally with an NFL franchise that wanted him.
The only thing to do now was to make it impossible for the team to get rid of him.
Unitas Proves He Belongs
During training camp before the 1956 season, the Colts coaching staff liked what they saw from Unitas.
Every practice was like life and death to the quarterback from Louisville and that was what impressed head coach Weeb Ewbank.
“He was a big boy, with good speed,” Ewbank said of the 6’1”, 190 pound Unitas. “Not dazzling speed, but good speed. And he was so very eager to learn.”
As the ‘56 season unfolded, Unitas was stuck behind starter George Shaw.
In a game against Detroit, Unitas saw some playing time and proceeded to throw two passes, one of which was incomplete while the other was picked off.
Two weeks later, Baltimore was playing the Chicago Bears and lost Shaw for the year with a broken leg.
Unitas entered the game and on his first pass attempt he threw an interception that was returned for a score.
When the Colts offense came back to the field on their next series, Unitas fumbled a handoff and the Bears recovered.
At that point, any NFL rookie would panic.
However, Unitas stayed calm and played as if he had been a starter for years.
Baltimore lost the Chicago contest 58-27, but Unitas got a good feel for the pro game in his limited action.
The next two weeks saw victories over the Packers and the Cleveland Browns.
It was Baltimore’s first ever win over Cleveland, a team who’s coach, Paul Brown, had interest in Unitas before he signed with the Colts.
— JVAN (@VanderlansJim) January 16, 2022
Baltimore would then lose four of their next six games to end the year 5-7.
Unitas threw for 1,498 yards, nine touchdowns, and 10 interceptions as a rookie.
During the last game of the season, he passed for a touchdown which would begin a streak of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass.
Unitas also had a 55.6-percent completion mark, which was a rookie record.
In 1957, Unitas was the Colts’ starter for the entire season and led the NFL in passing yards (2,550) and touchdown passes (24), attempts (301), yards per attempt (8.5), yards per game (212.5) and quarterback rating (88%).
At the season’s conclusion, he received the Jim Thorpe Award as the NFL’s MVP and went to the first of 10 Pro Bowls.
“The most important thing of all about Unitas,” said Ewbank, “is that he had a real hunger. This was a kid who wanted success and didn’t have it so long that he wasn’t about to waste it when it came.”
Baltimore finished the season with a 7-5 record, the first winning record in franchise history.
Unitas and the Colts Win the “Greatest Game Ever Played”
The Colts quick turnaround from losing organization to title contender mirrored Unitas’ time with the team.
In 1958, the third-year pro passed for 2,007 yards and led the league again in several categories including touchdowns (19) and quarterback rating (90.0).
That season was also Unitas’s first as a first-team All-Pro.
Meanwhile, with the leadership of Unitas and play of fellow stars Alan Ameche, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti, and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, the Colts went 9-3 (their best record yet) and faced the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game.
— NFL Throwback (@nflthrowback) May 24, 2019
By halftime, the Colts led the Giants 14-3 on the strength of an Ameche rushing touchdown and a 15-yard passing touchdown from Unitas to Berry.
New York then scored two unanswered touchdowns to take a 17-14 lead before Baltimore tied the game with a 20-yard field goal by kicker Steve Myhra with only seven seconds left.
Regulation ended with the score knotted at 17-17 which meant the game would go into sudden death overtime.
It would be the first sudden death overtime in NFL playoff history.
The extra period began with the Giants on offense, but they did nothing for three plays and punted on fourth down.
Baltimore, led by Unitas calling the plays, took the ball and drove downfield for a 13-play, 80-yard drive.
With the Colts on the New York eight-yard line, someone ran onto the field, delaying the game for a few minutes.
Legend has it that the interloper was actually an employee of NBC television who was ordered to create a distraction.
Apparently, the live television feed had gone dead (the result of an unplugged cable) and the distraction was just enough time to get the problem fixed before the next play.
Despite what might have actually happened, viewers would be glad to see what came next.
Three plays after the delay, Ameche took a handoff from Unitas and plunged over from one yard out to win the game 23-17.
° 1958 NFL CHAMPIONSHIP °
~ "The Greatest Game Ever Played" ~
The NFL comes of age, thrusting into the national spotlight as Johnny Unitas leads the #Baltimore Colts over the #Giants in the Yankee Stadium gloaming, 23-17 — the NFL's first "sudden-death" overtime game. pic.twitter.com/4WZ2OniCsq
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) December 28, 2021
The contest became an instant classic that was called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Unitas passed for 361 yards in the game and was hailed far and wide for his leadership and his ability to take a licking but keep on ticking.
“He’d (Unitas) get knocked on his fanny play after play, yet he’d be right up there at the spot where the referee was putting the ball down and then he’d be checking the clock and knowing how much yardage he needed,” said former Colts running back Buddy Young.
In 1959, Baltimore repeated their success from the year before when they finished 9-3 again and defeated the Giants 31-16 for their second straight title.
Unitas led the league in ‘59 in numerous categories including passing yards (2,899), touchdown passes (32), and completions (193).
He also had two touchdown passes and a touchdown run in the title game.
In just his fourth year as a pro, Unitas was overwhelmingly named the league’s MVP after the season and was also named the UPI’s Player of the Year.
After a Rough Patch, the Colts Return to the Title Game
Baltimore entered 1960 as back-to-back champions and hoped to continue adding to their title total.
However, for the next four years, the team would finish.500 twice and reach eight wins twice.
Unitas continued playing well and led the NFL in various categories nearly every season.
In 1960 and 1963, he would pass for over 3,000 yards, including 3,481 yards in ‘63, which would be a career-high.
Finally, the franchise got back on track in 1964 and finished the regular season 12-2.
— Neil Leifer (@LeiferNeil) June 4, 2021
Unitas was the NFL MVP once again on the strength of his 2,824 passing yards, 19 touchdowns, six picks, and a league-best 9.26 yards per pass attempt (one of three categories he led the league in that season).
Then the Colts faced Cleveland for the championship game and were heavy favorites going into the contest.
After a first half that saw neither team score, the Browns poured it on in the second half and blanked Baltimore 27-0 in a monumental upset.
Unitas Comes off the Bench in Super Bowl III
For the next few years, Unitas continued to lead the Colts and the NFL in several statistical categories.
He would pass for over 2,500 yards in 1965 and 1966 (along with a league-high 24 picks in ‘66) and then pass for 3,428 yards in 1967, a year in which the team went 11-1.
Unitas was voted NFL MVP for the third time after the ‘67 season.
During the preseason in 1968, Unitas sustained a serious arm injury in a game against Dallas.
The injury kept him out during the regular season as Baltimore, led by backup quarterback Earl Morrall, went 13-1.
After victories over Minnesota and Cleveland, the Colts faced the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
In the week leading up to the game, Jets quarterback Joe Namath predicted that New York would beat the heavily favored Colts.
He was mocked and scorned until the game began and the Jets led 16-0 late in the fourth quarter.
Desperate for a comeback, Colts coach Don Shula replaced Morrall with Unitas.
After a slow start, Unitas led Baltimore to a one-yard rushing score by running back Jerry Hill.
— Tom's Old Days (@sigg20) January 13, 2022
The Colts then kicked, and recovered, an onside kick and drove the ball to the Jets’ 19-yard line.
Unfortunately, the drive stalled and so did Baltimore’s chances as Namath’s prediction came true in a resounding 16-7 victory.
Surprisingly, Unitas ended up throwing for more passing yards and completions than Morrall for the day, but also threw an interception during the game.
Unitas and the Colts Win Super Bowl V
In 1969, Unitas came back from his arm injury and passed for 2,342 yards, 12 touchdowns, and 20 interceptions.
The following season, the Colts went 11-2-1 while Unitas passed for 2,213 yards, 14 touchdowns, and 18 picks.
He would receive the NFL’s Man of the Year Award following the season due to his charity work.
Baltimore then dispatched the Bengals and Raiders in the first two rounds of the playoffs before facing the Cowboys in Super Bowl V.
Near the end of the second quarter, Unitas connected on a 75-yard touchdown pass to tight end John Mackey (a Super Bowl record at the time) to put the score at 6-6 (the PAT was blocked).
The longest offensive play from scrimmage in the first 14 Super Bowls (tied in SB13) pic.twitter.com/S2wz6ozYGM
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) January 17, 2022
Shortly after, Unitas was knocked out of the game from a rib injury and Morrall took over.
After being down 13-6 at halftime, Morrall and Baltimore came back in the second half and won the game on a 32-yard field goal by kicker Jim O’Brien with 52 seconds remaining.
At long last, Unitas and Baltimore had another title and their first Super Bowl victory.
Final Years as a Colt and Trade to San Diego
In 1971, Unitas split playing time with Morrall and finished the year with just 942 yards, three touchdowns, and nine interceptions.
Clearly, Unitas’ best days were behind him even though he helped Baltimore defeat Cleveland in the Divisional round of the postseason.
The following week, he tossed three picks, including one returned for a score, in a 21-0 loss to Miami in the AFC Championship Game.
Then, in 1972, Unitas started only five games, passing for 1,111 yards, four touchdowns, and six interceptions.
— St. Louis Football Cardinals (@BigRed_STL) April 18, 2022
In his final home game as a Colt in Week 12, Unitas was riding the bench and Baltimore was crushing the Buffalo Bills 28-0.
The crowd chanted, “We want Unitas!”, and he was inserted into the game.
Unitas would throw two passes in mop-up duty including a 63-yard touchdown to receiver Eddie Hinton.
In early 1973, the Colts traded Unitas to the San Diego Chargers and he was named the starter.
— Vintage Jerseys & Hats (@PolyesterUnis) April 22, 2022
After only four starts to begin the year, Unitas had passed for 471 yards, three touchdowns, and seven picks.
He was also sacked 14 times.
In an attempt to try and salvage the season, the Chargers benched Unitas for the remainder of the year in favor of rookie Dan Fouts.
During the preseason in 1974, Unitas retired after 18 years.
In his career, Unitas had 40,239 yards, 290 touchdowns, and 253 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns.
He was a three-time NFL Champion, a Super Bowl champion, a three-time NFL MVP, an NFL Man of the Year, a five-time first-team All-Pro, three-time second-team All-Pro, 10-time Pro Bowler, NFL Passing Yards leader four times, league Passer Rating leader twice, NFL Completion Percentage leader once, and a three-time Bert Bell Award winner.
Unitas was also named to the NFL’s 1960s All-Decade Team and the league’s 50th, 75th, and 100th Anniversary Teams.
The Colts have also retired Unitas’ number 19 jersey.
Post Retirement and Death
After retiring, Unitas spent several years in broadcasting as a color commentator for CBS.
In 1979, he was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Hall of Fame QB Johnny Unitas was born OTD in 1933. Hall of Fame Enshrinement Class of 1979. Led the Baltimore Colts to 3 NFL Championships and 1 Super Bowl title (V). pic.twitter.com/ngjFykUqoH
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) May 7, 2018
Unitas would then become one of several former Colts who expressed outrage when then Colts owner Robert Irsay moved the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.
He severed ties to the team, publicly stating that he was a Baltimore Colt for life.
To further show his disgust at Irsay, Unitas donated much of his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore.
When the Cleveland Browns relocated to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996, Unitas became a fixture at Ravens games, often sitting at the 30-yard line.
On September 11, 2002, Unitas was working out at a physical therapy center in Baltimore when he died of a heart attack.
He was just 69 years old.
With his passing, Unitas was remembered fondly by his peers.
Fellow Hall of Fame Quarterback Sid Luckman said of Unitas that he was, “Better than me,” Luckman said, “better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone.”
”A guy broke through the line, hit him, pushed his head in the ground. He called the same play, let the guy come through and broke his nose with the football. I said, ‘That’s my hero,”’ said former teammate Bubba Smith.
The life and career of Unitas is summed up perfectly by Unitas himself in the quote on his Hall bio.
“I came into the league without any fuss. I’d just as soon leave it that way. There’s no difference I can see in retiring from pro football, or quitting a job at the Pennsy Railroad. I did something I wanted to do and went as far as I could go.”