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Johnny Unitas was an American football player known as the best quarterback in the National Football League. He played for the Baltimore Colts for the majority of his career. He won four Most Valuable Player awards during his career along with 10 invitations to the Pro Bowl. Many sport memorabilia shops sell merchandise with the autograph of Johnny Unitas.

Childhood and Football Beginnings

John Constantine Unitas was born in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania on May 7, 1933. His parents, Helen and Leon Unitas, bore four children and John was the third. Leon Unitas ran a small-scale coal delivery service and died in 1938. Helen Unitas took over the business when her husband died and cared for the children by herself.

Unitas attended Saint Justin’s High School in his home city and rapidly showed promise as a football player. He played as the starting quarterback for his high school team and won a position on the All Catholic High School team, known for their star players, during his senior year. Unitas hoped to pursue his football career in college, but many universities turned him down due to his long and lanky frame. At 6 feet tall and less than 140 pounds, he did not fit the standard type of quarterback.[1]

College Football, Marriage, and Children

The University of Louisville (UL) offered John Unitas a scholarship to play in Kentucky. He accepted after failing the University of Pittsburg entrance exam. He suffered a variety of injuries while at UL and continued playing quarterback through them. Johnny Unitas did not achieve high stats in passing and never won a season, but he did managed to gain 60 pounds and grow two inches.

The National Football League (NFL) soon noticed the change in Unitas and they kept an eye on him during his senior year. He graduated from UL in 1955. Unitas also married his long time girlfriend, Dorothy Jean Hoelle. The couple produced five children over the course of their marriage, including Kenneth, Christopher, Robert, John Constantine, Jr., and Janice.[2]

Journey to the NFL

Soon after graduating in 1955, Johnny Unitas became the ninth-round choice during the Pittsburg Steelers draft. The team cut him before he threw a single pass during an actual game.[3] The Steelers chose to cut him because they had too many quarterbacks at the time and they questioned his intellectual capabilities. Unitas moved with his new wife to Bloomfield, New Jersey. He first got a job as a pile driver on a construction work site.

Unitas continued to play football, but in the semi-professional league for the Bloomfield Rams.[4] The Rams paid their players only $6 per game.[5] Unitas’ natural talent again shone on the football field. By 1956, the professional Baltimore Colts offered him a position as backup quarterback.[6]

The Baltimore Colts

Johnny Unitas signed a contract with Weeb Ewbank, the Baltimore Colts’ coach for $17,000.[7] He played his first game in a professional stadium in the fourth game of the season. George Shaw, the Colts first quarterback, injured himself. Unitas’ first pass was intercepted by the other team and they scored a touchdown. He practiced more and solidified his skills. The following year, Unitas topped the NFL in passing yards and touchdown passes.

By 1958, Unitas earned the reputation as the best quarterback in the NFL. He played well under pressure, exuded confidence, and turned into the leader the Colts needed to win. Unitas led the Colts to victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game. The game is still known as the greatest game in the history of the NFL. The Colts narrowly won 23-17 thanks to a heroic performance from Unitas in the last few minutes of the game. The NFL named him the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the championship game.[8]

An Impressive, Professional Career

Johnny Unitas impressed the world of football with his outstanding stats and inspiring sportsmanship.

Johnny Unitas became famous in the first championship football game aired on television across the United States. He led the Baltimore Colts to another championship victory over the New York Giants again in 1959. He also earned the MVP title for the second year in a row. Johnny Unitas spent the next ten years breaking records and racking up impressive stats, but did not win another championship until 1970.

Unitas became the first quarterback to ever achieve 40,000 passing yards in his professional career of 26 games.[9] He also threw 290 touchdown passes. This led to his record of performing at least one pass resulting in a completed touchdown in 47 consecutive games.[10] The record stood for more than 50 years before being broken by the New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees on October 7, 2012, while wearing Unitas’ number, 19.[11]

Unitas inspired his teammates and other football professionals as well as his fans. The NFL selected him as their Player of the Year three years and he was a first or second-team choice within the All-NFL for eight years. He was also offered a place in 10 Pro-Bowls.[12]

Later Career and Retirement

Johnny Unitas’s last championship marked a downward spiral in his career and personal life. The many injuries he sustained playing football for so many years began to affect how he played. He divorced his wife, Dorothy, and soon remarried to a woman named Sandra. They bore one son, Francis Joseph. In 1973, the Colts traded Unitas to the San Diego Chargers, where he served as the backup quarterback. He retired at the end of the first season after 18 years as a football player.[13]

Post-Football Life, Legacy, and Honors

Johnny Unitas followed in his father’s footsteps after retiring by opening a business in Baltimore, Maryland. The Golden Arm restaurant prospered and he opened many other small businesses and restaurants in Florida. Unitas still loved football and accepted a position as a commentator for CBS Football in 1974. He worked with CBS for five years and continued to pursue other business opportunities as well.

In 1979, the Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted Unitas. Throughout the 1980s he invested in several businesses projects. Some succeeded, like his a sports management company called Unitas Management Corp., and some failed, like a second mortgage company forced into bankruptcy after a controversy. He founded the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation in 1987 which offers scholarships and a yearly Golden Arm Award given to the best college senior football quarterback.

Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack on September 11, 2002, while exercising with his physical therapist in Timonium, Maryland.[14] Fans of Johnny Unitas can buy sports memorabilia featuring his autograph on footballs, jerseys, and photographs online.[15]

References

Bibliography


Caccavale, J. (2006). Johnny Unitas. Penn State: Pennsylvania Center for the Book.[3]


Pro Football Hall of Fame. (2017). Johnny Unitas: Baltimore Colts & San Diego Chargers. Pro Football Hall of Fame.[4]

Footnotes

  1. Caccavale, 2006
  2. Caccavale, 2006
  3. Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2017
  4. Caccavale, 2006
  5. Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2017
  6. Caccavale, 2006
  7. Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2017
  8. Caccavale, 2006
  9. Caccavale, 2006
  10. Pro Football Hall of Fame, 2017
  11. Katzowitz, J. (2017, February 27). Drew Brees breaks Johnny Unitas’ record by throwing TD pass in 48th-straight game. CBS Sports.[1]
  12. Caccavale, 2006
  13. Caccavale, 2006
  14. Caccavale, 2006
  15. SportsMemorabilia.com (2017). Johnny Unitas Memorabilia, Autographed & Signed. SportsMemorabilia.com.[2]