John was 4.
He had never taken out a life insurance policy.
"My mother was left with zilch," Shirley said.
Mother instilled toughness
Her relatives suggested she send her children to an orphanage, but she refused. Instead, she sold the house in Brookline, moved to a cheaper, two-bedroom home on William Street in Mount Washington, a working-class neighborhood, and took in an uncle. He and the boys slept in one bedroom, Helen Unitas and the girls in the other. Helen hired drivers to keep her late husband's coal delivery trucks running, and also sold insurance, worked in a bakery and spent nights cleaning offices in downtown Pittsburgh. Later, she went to night school, earned a degree and worked as a bookkeeper for the city government.
"His mother instilled the tough attitude John later displayed," Joe Chilleo said. "She was the power behind the throne."
John's brother, Leonard, took on the father's role as best he could, meting out discipline and working to help put food on the table. John was too young to help at first, but once he was old enough, he helped Leonard deliver coal and made a few extra bucks shoveling coal piles.
"Times were tough," Shirley said. "Leonard didn't get anything for Christmas. John and I got very little. My mom didn't offer a lot of affection. She ruled with an iron hand. In the summer, she would leave a note listing the things that had to be done before we went swimming, and you'd better have them done by the time she got home or you were in for it. But you always got them done. She had it so hard, you would never think of causing her trouble."
'Not a conversationalist'
Mount Washington was a melting pot of immigrant families that included one of Pittsburgh's first housing projects, inhabited mostly by blacks. Everyone knew everyone, and the younger of the two Unitas boys was known for being shy, quiet and athletic.
"You could sit in a room with John for six hours and you might get a word here or there," Shirley said. "He was like a Gary Cooper, not a conversationalist. Didn't want any part of girls. He was a late bloomer in that regard."
An average student, he shone brightest at the games that inevitably cropped up when the neighborhood kids got together: paddleball, baseball, basketball, boxing - and football.
"He was a natural at any sport," said Ron Petrelli, a neighborhood friend who later played high school football with Unitas. "I thought I was a pretty good boxer, but we put on the gloves and I couldn't hit John. He could do anything."
The boys put together a sandlot football team in upper grade school and went around the city playing teams from other neighborhoods. Unitas, all 120 pounds of him, was the quarterback.
"He was thin, but he was already throwing a nice ball," Petrelli said. "And he was tough. One time he got run out of bounds and pushed into a wall, and he chipped a front tooth. But he kept playing."
His slender physique was alarming to some. "One time the nuns [from school] called the house wondering if John and I were malnourished; that's how bad it was," Shirley said. "My mother got really mad about that. There was always food on the table. We were just built like that."
Best in the 'B' League
But his slight build didn't hinder him once he was at St. Justin, a small Catholic high school in Mount Washington. The football coach, Max Carey, made him the starting quarterback, and Unitas emerged as the best in the Catholic "B" League, composed of teams from smaller schools. He threw 22 touchdown passes in his junior and senior seasons combined.