1933 - 2002
BALTIMORE, September 11,2002(AP) _ Many of his records already have fallen, and others may not last. His reputation, however, is forever secure. Johnny Unitas was one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. To many, he was the best of all.
Unitas, a Hall of Fame player who broke nearly every NFL passing record and won three championships with the Baltimore Colts during his 18-year career, died Wednesday at 69. He had a heart attack while working out at a physical therapy center in suburban Timonium, said Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, a spokeswoman for St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.
Unitas underwent emergency triple-bypass surgery in 1993 after a heart attack.
``Johnny U' was hardly the typical quarterback. With his trademark crewcut, drooping shoulders, crooked legs and black hightops, Unitas in his prime would look comical standing next to the tall, athletic quarterbacks of today.
Looks, however, can be deceiving.
``It's hard to say who's the best because so many things change as eras change. But he was the best,' former Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Len Dawson said. ``I first saw him when he was a rookie. Here was this bowlegged guy out there. But you could tell right away that he really knew the game.'
A pure dropback passer with an uncanny knack for making the big play, Unitas was the first to throw for 40,000 yards. He now ranks seventh, surpassed by a group of quarterbacks who played after him, with rules that make passing easier.
Unitas retired after the 1973 season with 22 NFL records, among them marks for most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing, most touchdown passes and most seasons leading the league in TD passes.
``Johnny Unitas will always be a legendary name in NFL history,' commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. ``One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, he epitomized the position with his leadership skills and his ability to perform under pressure.'
Unitas completed 2,830 of 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. He completed at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games, a record not challenged since it was set from 1956-60.
Unitas was the Most Valuable Player in 1964 and 1967 and played in 10 Pro Bowls. He led Baltimore to the NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 and the Super Bowl in 1970.
On the NFL's 50th anniversary in 1969, Unitas was voted the greatest quarterback of all time. He also was selected at quarterback for the NFL's All-Time team in 2000 by the 36 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.
``Johnny Unitas is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game, better than I was, better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone,' Sid Luckman, the great Chicago Bears quarterback of the 1940s, once said.
Unitas was one of the few quarterbacks who called his own plays, an ability traced to his knack for reading an opponent's defense and spotting a weakness, then calling a play to take advantage.
``The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the football, scoring points and winning,' said Hall of Fame receiver Raymond Berry, Unitas' favorite target.
Unitas was never flamboyant or boastful. Yet No. 19 always got the job done.
``A man never gets to this station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed and prodded to do better,' Unitas said at his induction into the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1979. ``I want to be honest with you: The players I played with and the coaches I had ... they are directly responsible for my being here. I want you all to remember that. I always will.'
Drafted out of Louisville in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955, Unitas hitchhiked home after being cut before the opener.
``Unfortunately, we did not give him a chance,' Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney said.
Unitas harbored no ill feelings.
``How could I?' he asked. ``It was the best thing that ever happened to me.'
The Colts signed him the following season after getting tipped to his ability in a most unusual way.
``Unitas was signed after we received a letter from a fan telling us there was a player in Bloomfield deserving a chance,' former Colts coach Weeb Ewbank recalled a few years later. ``I always accused Johnny of writing it.'
Unitas became a backup quarterback and made his debut in the fourth game of the 1956 season. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Unitas then fumbled on his next two possessions.
Fortunately, however, the Colts' other backup had decided to go to law school, and Unitas led Baltimore past the Green Bay Packers 28-21. A week later, the Colts upset the Cleveland Browns, and Unitas had earned himself a job.
He remained revered in Baltimore long after his retirement. He often watched Baltimore Ravens games from the sideline, and always received cheers when his face was displayed on the scoreboard.
``When you think of Baltimore, you think of Johnny Unitas,' Ravens senior vice president of football operations Ozzie Newsome said.
Unitas was born in Pittsburgh on May 7, 1933, and was 4 when his father, who had a small coal delivery business, died of pneumonia. His mother went to night school to become a bookkeeper to support her four children.
Unitas later said he learned more about courage from his mother than any coach.
``What made him the greatest quarterback of all time wasn't his arm or his size, it was what was inside his stomach,' said Giants general manager Ernie Accorsi, who worked with the Colts in Unitas' final years on the team.
Unitas' most noticeable malady was a curved right arm, evidence of the thousands of passes he threw. His worst injury was a torn Achilles' tendon, but he also had broken ribs, a punctured lung and knee injuries.
Unitas' brightest moment probably came in the 1958 championship against the New York Giants, a match that was called ``the greatest football game ever played' for years afterward.
With 90 seconds left, Unitas completed four passes, taking the Colts to the 20-yard line to tie the game on a field goal. He then engineered an 80-yard drive for the winning touchdown.
``The first playoff ever to go to sudden death ... you can't have much more drama than that,' Unitas recalled.
The following year, Unitas ran for one touchdown, passed for two scores and completed 18 of 29 passes for 264 yards as Baltimore beat the Giants 31-16 in the championship game.
His Super Bowl victory came in 1971, a 16-13 victory over Dallas in which he played sparingly. He also played in the 1969 Super Bowl, entering too late to save the Colts from a shocking 16-7 loss to Joe Namath and the New York Jets.
Unitas played his final season for the San Diego Chargers, but his influence on the game lasted long after his retirement. He served as a mentor to Louisville quarterback Chris Redman, who received his first NFL start last Sunday with the Ravens.
``I believe he's one of the main reasons I'm an NFL starting quarterback,' Redman said.
Unitas is survived by wife Sandra; sons John Jr., Kenneth, Robert, Christopher, Joe and Chad; and daughters Janice Ann Unitas-DeNittis and Paige Unitas. His first wife, Dorothy Jean Unitas, died in May.
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