Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Tackled but Untouched

September 17, 2002

It took a few days to confirm, but Johnny Unitas is not dead. Can't be. Even if we once envisioned onrushing Merlin Olsen and Deacon Jones each removing one of the quarterback's arms or Sam Huff burying the guy in mud, we know Unitas will show up come game time. Not even a fatal heart attack while working out at 69 could make him late. Unitas was that tough when he led the Baltimore Colts for 17 years, went to 10 Pro Bowls, threw touchdowns in 47 consecutive games and kept showing up and getting up.

Unitas wasn't flashy--no earrings or fancy car. He slouched and spoke simply, and you couldn't find him in nightclubs or jail. With no helmet radio, he called his own plays, even if injured. Unitas hated the name Johnny but never showed emotion; well, he smiled once. He just showed up in those stupid high-top shoes and kept trying. As he got older, he got wiser and wilier. Unitas wasn't for quitting even at 40. Think Clint Eastwood in cleats.

When Unitas turned pro, his passes struggled like wounded ducks. Pittsburgh's Steelers, always seeking a way to lose, cut the future Hall of Famer. So what did Unitas do? He worked construction by day to play sandlot football at night for $6 a game. The Colts called. In 1956, they got him--and three NFL championships. It was frustrating to cheer against Unitas. Win or lose, he'd walk away quietly, like a pro. What fun is booing someone like that?

You need not hate the New York Giants (though it helps) to know that Johnny helped invent sudden-death overtime in the '58 NFL championship game. New York was winning with 90 seconds left. Unitas took 83 of them to tie it. In overtime from the one-yard line, Unitas called a run by Alan Ameche over left tackle. Everybody lined up for that, including the Giants. But Unitas told Ameche to go right instead. Ameche plunged to victory virtually untouched. Unitas smiled.

It took four years and 103 touchdowns for Unitas to set the 47-consecutive-game record for scoring passes. That record stands after 42 years. The Colts played the Rams here when Unitas broke the record of 22 games. They halted the game to give Unitas the football. He didn't dance. He didn't gesture. He said thank you and returned to work. And do you know where that record-breaking football is today? We don't either. No one does. No. 19 gave it to some kids to play with. That's how we know John Unitas lives on.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|