John Constantine "Johnny" Unitas
(May 7, 1933 –
September 11, 2002), nicknamed The Golden Arm
often called Johnny U
, was a professional American football
player in the 1950s
through the 1970s, spending the majority of his career with the
. He was a
, and the
National Football League
most valuable player in 1959, 1964 and 1967. His record of throwing
a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games (between 1956-1960)
remains unsurpassed as of 2009. He is widely considered to be one
of the greatest NFL quarterbacks of all time.
born to Lithuanian immigrant parents in
Pennsylvania, in 1933, and grew up in the Mount
His father died when Johnny
was four years old, and he was raised by his mother, who worked two
jobs to support the family. His unusual surname was a result of a
of a common Lithuanian
last name Jonaitis
Attending St Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played
. After high school, Unitas looked
for an opportunity to play college football. He was passed over by
Dame and Indiana. Pitt offered a scholarship, but Unitas failed the
Louisville finally came through with a scholarship, and Unitas
left home for Kentucky.
In his four-year career as a Louisville Cardinal, Unitas completed
245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns. It is recorded that
the 6'1" Johnny Unitas weighed 145 pounds on his first day of
practice at the University of Louisville. Unitas' first start was
in the fifth game of the 1951 season against St. Bonaventure. The
game freshman threw 11 consecutive passes and three touchdowns to
give the Cardinals a 21-19 lead. Though Louisville lost the game 22-21 on a disputed field goal, it
had found a talented quarterback.
Unitas completed 12 of 19
passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-28 victory over
Houston. The team finished the season 5-5 — 4-1 with Unitas as the
starting quarterback. As a freshman, Unitas completed 46 of 99
passes for 602 yards and nine touchdowns (44).
By the 1952 season, the university decided to de-emphasize sports.
The new president at Louisville, Dr. Phillip Davidson
, reduced the
amount of athletic aid, and tightened academic standards for
athletes. As a result, 15 returning players could not meet the new
standards and lost their scholarships.
In 1952 Coach Camp switched the team to two-way football. Unitas
not only played safety
linebacker on defense and quarterback on offense but returned kicks
and punts on special teams. The Cards won their first game against
Wayne State, and destroyed Florida State 41-14 in the second game.
Unitas completed 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and three
touchdowns. It was said that Unitas put on such a show at the
Florida State game that he threw a pass under his legs for 15
yards. The rest of the season was a struggle for the Cards, who
finished 3-5. Unitas completed 106 of 198 passes for 1,540 yards
and 12 touchdowns in his sophomore year.
won their first game in 1953, against Murray State, and lost the rest for a record of 1-7.
of the most memorable games of the season came in a 59-6 loss
against Tennessee. Unitas completed 9 of 19 passes for 73 yards,
rushed 9 times for 52 yards, returned 6 kickoffs for eighty-five
yards, 1 punt for three yards, and had 86 percent of the team's
tackles. The only touchdown the team scored was in the fourth
quarter when Unitas made a fake pitch to the running back and ran
the ball 23 yards for a touchdown
was hurt later in the fourth quarter while trying to run the ball,
and on his way off the field received a standing ovation. When he
got to the locker room he was so worn that his jersey and shoulder
pads had to be cut off because he could not lift his arms.
Louisville ended the season with 20-13 loss to Eastern Kentucky. In
his junior year, Unitas completed 49 of 95 passes for 470 yards and
Unitas was elected captain for the 1954 season, but due to an early
injury did not see much playing time. His first start was the third
game of the season, against Florida State. Of the 34-man team, 21
were freshmen. The 1954 Louisville Cardinals went 3-6, with the
last win at home against Morehead State. Unitas was slowed by so
many injuries his senior year his 527 passing yards ended second to
Jim Houser's 560.
After college, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round by the
of the NFL
but was released before the season began as the odd man out among
four quarterbacks trying to fill three spots. Among those edging
out Unitas was Ted Marchibroda
future NFL quarterback and longtime NFL head coach.
Married with a child and out of pro football, Unitas worked
construction in Pittsburgh to support his family. On the weekends,
he played quarterback, safety and punter on a local semipro
team called the Bloomfield Rams
for $6 a game.
In 1956 Unitas joined the Baltimore
of the NFL
legendary coach Weeb Ewbank
, after being
asked at the last minute to join Bloomfield Rams lineman Jim
Deglau, a Croatian steel worker with a life much like Unitas', at
the latter's scheduled Colts tryout. The pair borrowed money from
friends to pay for the gas to make the trip. Deglau later told a
reporter after Unitas' death, "[His] uncle told him not to come.
[He] was worried that if he came down and the Colts passed on him,
it would look bad (to other NFL teams).". The Colts signed Unitas,
much to the chagrin of the Cleveland
, who had hoped to claim the rejected Steeler
When starting quarterback George Shaw suffered a broken leg against
the Chicago Bears
in the season's
fourth game, Unitas made a nervous debut. His first pass was
intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then he botched a
hand-off on his next play, a fumble recovered by the Bears. Unitas
rebounded quickly from that 58–27 loss, leading the Colts to an
upset of Green Bay
and their first
win over Cleveland. He threw nine touchdown passes that year,
including one in the season finale that started his record 47-game
streak. His 55.6-percent completion mark was a rookie record.
In 1957, his first season as the Colts full-time starter at
quarterback, Unitas finished first in the NFL in passing yards
(2,550) and touchdown passes (24) as he helped lead the Colts to a
7-5 record, the first winning record in franchise history. At
season's end, Unitas was named the NFL's Most
by the Newspaper Enterprise
"Greatest Game Ever Played"
The Colts won the NFL championship
under Unitas' leadership in 1958, by defeating the New York Giants
23–17 in sudden death
overtime. It was the first
overtime game in NFL history, and is often referred to as the
"greatest game ever
." The game, nationally televised by NBC
, has been credited for sparking the rise in
popularity of professional football during the 1960s. In 1959,
Unitas was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press
(AP) and UPI
for the first time, leading the NFL in passing yards
(2,899), touchdown passes (32) and completions (193).Unitas then
led the Colts to a repeat championship, beating the Giants again
31-16 in the title game.
The '50s become the '60s
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, the Colts fortunes (and win
totals) declined. Injuries to key players such as Alan Ameche
and Lenny Moore
contributing factor to this. Unitas' streak of 47 straight games
with at least one touchdown pass ended against the Los Angeles Rams
in week 11 of the 1960
season. After three middle-of-the-pack seasons, Colts owner
Ewbank and replaced him with Don Shula
the then-youngest head coach in NFL history (33 years of age when
he was hired). The Colts finished 8-6 in Shula's first season at
the helm, good enough for only third-place in the NFL's Western
Conference but they did end the season on a strong note by winning
their final 3 games. The season was very successful for Unitas
personally as he led the NFL in passing yards with a career-best
total of 3,481 and also led in completions with 237.
Second MVP in '64
The 1964 season
see the Colts return to the top of the Western Conference. After
dropping their season opener to the Vikings, the Colts ran off 10
straight victories to finish with a 12-2 record. The season was one
of Unitas' best as he finished with 2,824 yards passing, a
league-best 9.26 yards per pass attempt, 19 touchdown passes and
only 6 interceptions. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player
by the AP and UPI for a second time. However, the season would end
on a disappointing note for the Colts as they were upset by the
Cleveland Browns in the 1964
NFL Championship Game
, losing 27-0.
More postseason heartbreak would follow in 1965. The Colts and
Packers finished in a tie for first place in the Western Conference
and a one-game playoff
in Green Bay to decide who would be the conference representative
in the 1965 NFL Championship Game. The Colts lost in overtime 13-10
due in large part to a game-tying field goal by Don Chandler
that many say was incorrectly
ruled good. The season had been another fine one for Unitas, as he
threw for 2,530 yards, 23 touchdowns and finished with a
league-high 97.1 passer rating, but he was lost for the balance of
the season due to a knee injury in a week 12 loss to the Bears.
Backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo
suffered a season-ending injury the following week and it would be
running back Tom Matte
who filled in as
the emergency QB for the regular-season finale and the playoff loss
to the Packers.
Third MVP in '66
After once again finishing 2nd in the Western Conference in 1966,
the Colts rebounded to finish 11-1-2 in 1967 tying the Los Angeles
Rams for the NFL's best record. In winning his third MVP awards
from the AP and UPI in 1967 (and his second from the NEA), Unitas
had a league-high 58.5 completion percentage and passed for 3,428
yards and 20 touchdowns. Once again the season ended in heartbreak
for the Colts, as they were shut out of the newly-instituted four
team NFL playoff after losing the divisional tiebreaker to the Rams
due to a 34-10 loss to them in the regular season finale.
Superbowls in '68 and '70
In the final game of the 1968 preseason, the muscles in Unitas' arm
were torn when he was hit by the Dallas Cowboys defense. He would
spend most of the season sitting on the bench. But the Colts still
marched to a league-best 13-1 record behind backup quarterback and
ultimate 1968 NFL MVP Earl Morrall
Although he was injured through most of the season, Unitas came off
the bench to play in Super Bowl III
the famous game wherein Joe Namath
guaranteed a New York Jets
conventional wisdom. Unitas' insertion was a desperation move in an
attempt to retrieve dominance of the NFL over the upstart AFL
. Unitas helped put together the
Colts' only score, a touchdown late in the game. Despite not
playing until the fourth quarter, Unitas still finished with more
passing yards than the team's starter, Morrall. In 1970, Unitas led
the Colts to Super Bowl V
. He was
knocked out of the game in the second quarter, after throwing a
75-yard touchdown pass (setting a then-Super Bowl record) that
helped lift the team to victory. In 1971 Unitas brought the Colts
to the AFC Championship, a 21-0 loss to Miami.
Unitas was involved in only one other head-to-head meeting with
Namath after their 1970 regular season meeting (won by the Colts,
29-22, on a day when Namath's wrist was broken on the final play of
the game). That last meeting was a memorable one. On September 24, 1972, at
Stadium, Unitas threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns,
but Namath upstaged him again, bombing the Colts for 496 yards and
six touchdowns in a 44-34 Jets victory --- their first over
Baltimore since the 1970 merger.
San Diego, retirement, and records
Unitas was traded to the San Diego
in 1973, and retired from football in 1974. He
finished his 17 NFL seasons with 2,830 completions in 5,186 passes
for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, with 253 interceptions. He
also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Unitas set many passing records during his career. He was the first
quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards, despite playing
during an era when NFL teams played shorter seasons of 12 or 14
games (as opposed to today's 16-game seasons). His 47-game
touchdown streak between 1956 and 1960 is a record that still
stands and is considered by many the football equivalent of Joe
DiMaggio's 56-game baseball hitting streak.
After his playing days were finished, Unitas settled in Baltimore
where he raised his family while also pursuing a career in
broadcasting, doing color
for NFL games on CBS
the 1970s. After Robert
Irsay moved the Colts franchise to Indianapolis in 1984, a move reviled to this day in Baltimore as
"Bob Irsay's Midnight Ride," Unitas was so outraged that he cut all
ties to the relocated team (though his #19 jersey is still retired
by the Colts).
Other prominent old-time Colts followed his
asked the Pro Football Hall of Fame on numerous occasions (including on Roy Firestone's Up Close) to remove
his display unless it was listed as belonging to the Baltimore
The Hall of Fame has never complied with the request.
Unitas donated his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in
Baltimore; it is now on display in the Sports Legends Museum at
Unitas actively lobbied for another NFL team to come to Baltimore.
After the NFL returned to Baltimore in 1996 as the Ravens
Unitas and most of the other
old-time Colts regarded the Ravens as the true successors to the
Baltimore Colts. Unitas was frequently seen on the Ravens'
sidelines at home games and received a thunderous ovation every
time he was pictured on each of the huge widescreens at M&T Bank
He was often seen on the 30 yard line on
the Ravens side.
When the NFL celebrated its first 50 years, Unitas was voted the
league's best player. Retired Bears quarterback Sid Luckman
said of Unitas, "He was better than
me. Better than Baugh
. Better than
December 2005, the state of Indiana attempted to raise funds for a new
football stadium by issuing a Colts specialty license plate and auctioning off plates whose
registrations represented distinctive Colts position-number
"QB 18" for Peyton
Unitas was married by his uncle to his high school sweetheart
Dorothy Hoelle on November 20, 1954; they had five children.
after he divorced Dorothy in Reno on June 26,
1972, Unitas married Sandra Lemon; they had three children and
stayed together until his death.
September 11, 2002, Unitas died suddenly of a myocardial infarction (heart attack)
while working out at the Kernan Physical
Therapy Center in Timonium, Maryland.
After his death, many fans of the Baltimore Ravens
football team petitioned
the renaming of the Ravens' home stadium (owned by the State of
Maryland) after Unitas. These requests, however, were unsuccessful
since the lucrative naming rights had already been leased by the
Ravens to Buffalo, New
York M&T Bank.
However, a statue of Unitas was erected as the centerpiece of the
plaza in front of the Stadium named in Unitas' honor. Large banners
depicting the NFL Hall of Famer in his Baltimore Colts heyday flank
the entrance to the stadium. Towson University, where Unitas was a major fund-raiser and which his
children attended. named its football and lacrosse complex Johnny
Unitas Stadium in recognition of both his football career and
service to the University.
Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the
many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players
suffered during the their careers before heavy padding and other
safety features became popular. Unitas himself lost almost total
use of his right hand, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably
disfigured from being repeatedly broken during games.
buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial
Gardens in Timonium, Maryland.
- Unitas held the record for most Pro Bowl appearances (10) by a
quarterback until tied by Brett Favre in
- Unitas set the original standard for most wins as a
starting quarterback with 118 regular season victories (since
surpassed by Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, John Elway,
Brett Favre, and Peyton Manning).
- Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in
- Johnny Unitas' #16 is the only number retired by the football
program at the University of Louisville.
- Unitas Tower, a dormitory at the University of Louisville, is
named for Johnny Unitas.
statue of Johnny Unitas sits in the north end zone of Papa John's
Cardinal Stadium at the University of Louisville. It is
tradition for each Cardinal player to touch the statue as he enters
- Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm
Award has been awarded to the top senior quarterback of the
current year in college football.
The award is presented annually in Louisville.
- In 1999, he was ranked No. 5 on "The Sporting News'" list of the 100
Greatest Football Players, behind only Joe
Montana among quarterbacks.
- In 2004, TSN ranked Unitas No. 1 among the
NFL's 50 Greatest Quarterbacks, with Joe Montana No. 2.
- In 1999, ESPN's Sportscentury: 50
Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century ranked Unitas #32
- Just before his death, Johnny Unitas became the community
liaison for athletics in Towson, Maryland. The football stadium
University was renamed Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2002. Unitas died less than a week after
throwing his last pass in the grand opening of the stadium.
- Johnny set the record for consecutive games with a touchdown
pass at 47 games. This remains unsurpassed as of 2009.
- Unitas' grandson, J.C. Unitas, was a junior quarterback at Villanova
University. He currently attends the University of
- Appeared as a color-commentator in the 1976 Disney film Gus.
- He guest-starred as himself in The
Simpsons episode "Homie the
Clown" (first aired February 12,
1995). In the episode "Mother Simpson" (first aired November 19, 1995), Grandpa Simpson also refers to Unitas having
a "haircut you could set your watch to."
- In 1999, Unitas was an extra in Runaway Bride. He can be seen
about 25 minutes into the movie sitting on the bench outside the
- In 1999, Unitas was featured in the movie Any Given Sunday as the head coach of
the fictional Dallas Knights.
- For the game following his death, Indianapolis Colts
quarterback Peyton Manning requested to wear a pair of black cleats
as a tribute to Johnny's signature black boots. The league denied
his request and threatened Manning with a $25,000 fine. Manning
decided not to wear them. Ravens QB Chris Redman wore the cleats
without asking permission and was fined only $5000.
- Stephen Decatur High School named its student commons Johnny
- In the episode "Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas" from Season 1
of The Adventures of
Pete and Pete, Pete became obsessed with Unitas.
- Bolus, Jim, and Billy Reed. Cardinal Football.
Champaign, IL: Sports Pub Inc., 1999.
- Callahan, Tom. Johnny U: the life and times of John
Unitas. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
- Lazenby, Roland. Johnny Unitas: the best there ever
was. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2002.
- Schaap, Dick (1999). "Johnny Unitas: Sunday's Best". In
ESPN SportsCentury. Michael MacCambridge, Editor. New
York: ESPN-Hyperion Books. pp. 154–65.