Growing up in Baltimore in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s you were a Colts fan. There wasn’t a lot of choice in the matter. Everybody followed the Colts. Even if you moved to Baltimore from out of town, you might have kept your allegiance to some other team, but you did it quietly. On the outside, you were a Colts fan.
I didn’t know any other football teams really. The Redskins and Eagles were teams we beat all the time. The Browns were occasionally good. The Giants had been in decline, and the Packers were the team we hated the most. We talked about the Colts; our parents, teachers, friends and even our priests talk about the Colts. Of course, it didn’t hurt that they were among the best teams in the league at that time, and had some of the best players to ever play the game wearing the blue and white.
And they had Johnny Unitas.
There were the Colts, the guys who played on Sunday and wore the Colts uniforms, and then there was Unitas, the guy who, in our minds invented football. If football players are larger than life, Unitas was some kind of sports deity. Being cut by the Steelers and acquired by the Colts through a sixty-cent phone call, Unitas was perfect for Baltimore. Maybe it’s because it’s a port town, and maybe because it’s always been working class and full of immigrants and ethnic neighborhoods, Baltimore has always seemed to be full of people who tried harder. It’s always had that second-city identity, and Unitas was embraced as one of us. He wasn’t the biggest or fastest, but he usually was the smartest guy on the field. In an era where the quarterback called the plays, Unitas had a knack for always calling the right one.
In 1998, the NFL had a 40th anniversary celebration at the Super Bowl of the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Colts and the New York Giants known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” All of the big names from that game were there. Except Unitas. He said he had a previous engagement, but actually he was angry with the NFL and their medical benefits coverage for players of his era. Still, he was the topic of conversation among Lenny Moore, Art Donovan, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff and the others. “Unitas just picked us apart,” Huff said when asked about the Colts’ drives at the end of regulation and in overtime. “He was the best,” the Hall of Fame linebacker added.
In a crowded room of reporters I asked if they were anticipating the match up again in 1959 title game. “Nah,” Huff dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand, “they still had Unitas and we didn’t. He was the difference. We knew it would be the same.”
Unitas defined what a quarterback was supposed to be: talented without being showy, smart without being a know-it-all and confident without being cocky. He wasn’t just in the game; he was part of the game. He knew where everybody was supposed to be on the field at all times. All 21 other players. Some of his teammates, and many of his competitors thought Unitas to be too cocky. He scoffed at that idea saying, “Conceit is when you’re bragging. Confidence is when you know you can get the job done. And you let those other guys in the huddle know they can get the job done too. Without them, I’m nothing.”
He was probably right about the 1970 Super Bowl where Don Shula (then the Colts Head Coach) put him in too late to do anything. The Jets, 16-7, upset the Colts, the first win for the AFL. Asked if he would have made a difference if he had started Unitas offhandedly said, “it wouldn’t have taken that long.”
In the shifting American culture of the late 50’s through the early 70’s, Unitas was “old school” before anybody heard of “old school.” The sloped shoulders, the single bar helmet and the trademark black high tops. Running around in my front yard we were always, Tarkenton, Jurgensen or even Dr. Frank Ryan. Nobody was Unitas. He was too revered. It never was even a question. We were not worthy. Nobody wore 19. That was Johnny U’s number. Period. You just didn’t wear 19. Sure, when you were playing catch you could emulate that two handed, shoulder-shifting, seven-step drop with a perfect over-the-top delivery, but never in the street game. You’d be ridiculed. “What? You trying to be Unitas or something?”
Intensely private, Unitas stayed out of the spotlight after his retirement, even when he went back to work out of football after some failed investments. He worked with a friend of my father in the import/export business for a while. It was hard to believe that you could call a business and they’d put you through to Johnny U. “Unitas,” is how he answered the phone when my Dad put in a call after some prodding from his friend. “Uh, uh, uh,” were the first three things my Dad said until Unitas interrupted him and said in a calm and very friendly manner, “I get this a lot. Just relax and tell me how I can help you.” Once composed, my Dad and John Unitas had a pleasant, short conversation.
We should have known something about the Irsays when they allowed Unitas to finish his career with San Diego. Unitas did go over 40,000 yards passing in a Chargers uniform, the first quarterback to do so. And he taught Dan Fouts how to be a quarterback.
He wanted his stats deleted from the Colts record book once they moved to Indianapolis. If they weren’t from Baltimore, they couldn’t possibly be the Colts. (I’ve always been somewhat chagrined that there was no loud cry for a new team in Baltimore when Irsay moved the Mayflower vans out under the cover of darkness in 1984. When Modell moved the Browns, you’d have thought a national crime was committed, but when the Colts were stolen, there wasn’t a peep outside of Baltimore.)
So it always seemed strange to me when Unitas adopted the Ravens when they moved to town. But there he was, standing on the sidelines during most home games, just lending his aura, his connection to tradition, to the newest immigrants in Baltimore.
I saw John Unitas last year at the Jaguars/Ravens game. Waiting for an elevator, the doors opened, and standing there in a khaki windbreaker and a young p.r. intern at his side was Johnny U. I stood there for a second, and when we made eye contact it gave me that “are you getting on” look. I really didn’t want to bother him, but somehow I did want him to know what a positive influence he’d been on my life. So I just said, “Hi,” and mentioned that I grew up in Baltimore and had been a Colts fan in his playing days. “Yeah, those were great times,” he said, as I’m sure he’d said a million times before. But he said it with that trademark self-deprecating smile as the doors opened and we walked toward the field.
I thought about that two-handed, shoulder shifting, seven step drop with the perfect overhand delivery as he stepped onto the field.
“What? You trying to be Unitas or something,” I heard my boyhood friends shouting in my memory.
Shouldn’t we all?