Thursday, May 7, 2015

Johnny Unitas: A Legend Who Played When Football Was A Game

When you live in the Appalachian Mountains in a deep valley at the edge of the Allegany Front, and far-removed from television broadcast towers, the straight-line signals simply fly far overhead. Viewers had to rely on reflection in order to get decent reception. Getting a clear and consistent picture was impossible. That problem was rectified when citizens in our small town organized one of the earliest cable television systems in the United States. My dad subscribed to their service in 1953. It was the same year the Colts reorganized in Baltimore. We watched plenty of football and baseball games over the next three years, but I don't recall watching the Colts, only the Washington Redskins, and the World Series where the Yankees always won.

In 1956. my family moved to Maryland's Eastern Shore, a region anchored to the Chesapeake Bay, Baltimore, and the Colts. A new face, Johnny Unitas, joined the team that year. He was a scrawny kid from Pittsburgh who played quarterback at the University of Louisville. He was

a ninth-round draft pick by the Steelers who ended up releasing him before the season began. The Colts coach, Weeb Ewbank, saw him as a promising walk-on. When the starting quarterback broke his leg early in the season, Unitas made a disappointing debut that he would soon overcome. In fact, late in the season he threw the first touchdown pass in his 47 game streak, a record that would stand for fifty years. Many of his other records have been beaten, but keep in mind that teams played fewer games per season in those days. The simple conclusion is that Unitas's passing records will be around for a long, long time.

I'll let you read more about him and his records at the links. I will say that Johnny U and the Colts gave my dad and me, and our friends and family, some exciting entertainment between 1956 and 1973. At first, the old black and white television was small, but it turned to color in 1962 and got bigger. The game was always big. Of course, the highlight of those years was the 23-17 National Football League Championship win over the New Yorks Giants in sudden death overtime in 1958. I turned twelve that year and I doubt I'll ever see anything to beat "the greatest game ever played."

Unitas retired from the field in 1974 almost crippled from years of play in the days before adequate protective gear. He remained active in the professional football family and firmly loyal to Baltimore and the fans when the Colt franchise rolled out of town in the middle of the night on its way to Indianapolis in 1984. He lived almost twenty years beyond that sad day quietly enjoying his family, friends and fame.

I don't think the kid from Pittsburgh changed much over all of his years. He became famous, but he did it the hard way, starting out when you needed an off-season job to make ends meet. Things are different these days. Today's players are instant stars earning mega-millions before they play their first professional game. Johnny U's magic arm helped make it happen for them.

Today is his birthday. The year was 1933, the place was Pittsburgh. Gritty origins for a star. It didn't matter to him in the end because he got to play the game. And what a game it was.

Wikipedia, Johnny Unitas, Johnny Unitas, Official Johnny Unitas website

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