Goodbye, Johnny U

Hall of Fame quarterback dies of heart attack

Posted: Thursday, September 12, 2002

BALTIMORE -- Johnny Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback who broke nearly every NFL passing record and won three championships with the Baltimore Colts in an 18-year career, died Wednesday at age 69.

Unitas had a heart attack while working out at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium, said Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, a spokeswoman for St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson.

Unitas underwent emergency triple-bypass surgery in March 1993 after a heart attack.

''Johnny U,'' with his trademark crewcut and black hightops, captured the public's imagination and helped drive the growing popularity of professional football.

He led the Colts to victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game, an overtime thriller that was essential in building the league's fan base.

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,'' league 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 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.

''He was one of the toughest competitors I ever knew, and overcame tremendous odds to become one of the greatest players in NFL history,'' said Don Shula, Unitas' coach from 1963-69.

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.

''To be in Baltimore as a receiver and get to play 12 years with him, I have to classify as the best break I ever got in my career,'' Hall of Famer Raymond Berry said. ''The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the football, scoring points and winning.''

John Mackey, the Colts' tight end during the Unitas years, once said of his teammate, ''It's like being in a huddle with God.''

Unitas was never flamboyant or boastful -- yet No. 19 always seemed to get the job done thoroughly and quietly.

''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.''

The long list of accomplishments was quite a reversal of fortune for a player who hitchhiked home from his first NFL training camp after the Pittsburgh Steelers cut him in 1955. He spent that season playing semipro football on rock- and glass-covered fields in Pittsburgh for $6 a game and working as a piledriver at a construction site.

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. It got worse as Unitas fumbled on his next two possessions.

Fortunately, however, the Colts' other backup had opted for law school and Unitas was able to start the next game, and Baltimore beat 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 sidelines, and always received cheers when his face was displayed on the scoreboard.

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