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JOHNNY UNITAS 1933-2002

A Crew Cut Above

Pro football: Quarterback known for his leadership helped bring in the modern era with Colts in 1958 championship game victory.

September 12, 2002|SAM FARMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Johnny Unitas, the legendary Baltimore Colt quarterback who broke nearly every NFL passing record and was known for his remarkable field presence as he ushered in the league's modern era, died Wednesday afternoon. He was 69.

Unitas suffered a heart attack while working out at a physical therapy center in Timonium, Md., and, despite efforts by the center's medical staff to revive him, he died at the scene. His body was taken to nearby St. Joseph Medical Center.

"It was a swift event," said Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, a spokeswoman for the hospital.

Unitas had undergone emergency triple-bypass surgery in 1993 after a heart attack.

Known as the "Meal Ticket" by one teammate and "Johnny U" by the rest of the football world, Unitas in his familiar No. 19 won three championships with the Baltimore Colts in an 18-year career. The two-time NFL most valuable player was the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards and retired after the 1973 season with 22 NFL records, among them most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing and most seasons leading the league in touchdown passes.

He threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, a record that has not come close to being touched. That mark is more impressive considering he set it when teams played 12 games a season, not the current 16, so it represents a four-year span.

"He was the greatest quarterback who ever lived," said Sam Huff, a Hall of Fame linebacker for the New York Giants and Washington Redskins. "He couldn't run like Fran Tarkenton, he couldn't throw a screen pass like Y.A. Tittle, he couldn't throw a picture-perfect pass like Sonny Jurgensen, but he could do everything and make it work."

Huff played across the line of scrimmage from Unitas in the 1958 championship, when the star quarterback led the Colts to a come-from-behind victory over the Giants in a match football historians have long called "the Greatest Game Ever Played."

With 90 seconds remaining in regulation, and the Colts trailing by three, Unitas completed four passes to move 85 yards and set up the tying field goal.

"At the time, I was thinking, 'OK, we tied. At least we'll get half the money,' " Huff recalled. "Nobody ever talked about sudden death; I didn't even know what that meant."

The league's commissioner was Bert Bell, who believed no championship game should end in a tie, and an on-the-spot decision was made to play until the next team scored.

The Giants got the ball first but were forced to punt. Unitas responded by driving his team 80 yards in 12 plays, and running back Alan Ameche scored to give the Colts a 23-17 victory in the nationally televised game at Yankee Stadium. Suddenly, millions of TV viewers were hooked on football.

"The drama came from the championship setting rather than the game itself, until we came down to tie it in the final seconds," Unitas recalled. "And then it became the first playoff ever to go to sudden death, and you can't have much more drama than that."

Don Shula, who coached Unitas for seven seasons, said it was Unitas' toughness as much as anything that allowed him to stay in the pocket, giving his receivers that much more time to get open.

"I always felt that he invented the two-minute drill," Shula said. "He seemed to have a clock in his head and always knew how much time he had to work with."

"He was the first of the great modern quarterbacks, and his performance set the standard for everyone who followed him at that position."

In 1968, Unitas suffered a severe injury to his right arm during an exhibition game and had to sit out most of the season. He threw only 32 passes that season, and his backup, Earl Morrall, became the NFL's MVP. Morrall led the Colts to Super Bowl III, where they lost to Joe Namath and the upstart New York Jets in one of the most momentous upsets in NFL history.

"I didn't even play until the fourth quarter," Unitas said in 1994, recalling that Super Bowl stunner. "Any time they bring out in these little excerpts and they bring the '68 game on, they talk about Joe Namath being against Johnny Unitas.

"I say, 'Uh-uh.' They're blaming me for all that stuff. I didn't have anything to do with it until the fourth quarter. I took the team down and scored a touchdown and we were going for another one when the game ended."

From his trademark flattop haircut to his black high-top cleats, Unitas embodied Baltimore. He was always critical of Robert Irsay's decision to move the Colts to Indianapolis. At one point he said he did not want to be included in the record books put out by the Indianapolis Colts.

In the last few years, however, he was a high-profile supporter of the Baltimore Ravens, the former Cleveland Browns.

"He was on the short list of players that you can count on one hand of the greatest to ever play," said Art Modell, owner of the Ravens. "His impact was enormous. He cared so much for this community that he made his home. And he fought for his fellow NFL alumni to increase their benefits and improve their lives."

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