"He was a phenomenon," his cousin Joe Unitas said. "People wanted to come see this skinny, bowlegged kid jump up in the air and throw the ball 40 yards. Of course, he was jumping because he couldn't see over the linemen."
"I was prone on many plays," Laitta recalled, "and John was as thin as a toothpick. He took quite a beating. But he always got up."
As a senior, Unitas played both ways, excelling as a safety on defense. But his specialty was offense. In one game, he threw a ball 60 yards in the air to a fast end named Arnold Beasley. Unitas had an arm, no doubt about it.
"He also had exactly the same mind-set that he would have later [in the pros]," Chilleo said. "When he thought he was right, by gosh, he was right."
The college question
His dream of playing pro football-or at the very least, continuing to play after high school - was simmering quietly in his mind. College ball was the next step, but his mother had no money for tuition. Unitas wouldn't be able to go to college unless he somehow secured a football scholarship, and that knowledge kindled a powerful sense of purpose that was evident throughout his high school career.
Early in his junior season, he was fooling around with a gun that his mother kept to ward off prowlers and accidentally shot himself in the middle finger of his right hand. A doctor put a splint on the finger, and Unitas didn't miss a game.
"You had to see it to believe it," Laitta said. "He could throw a 50-yard pass with that splint. He didn't miss a thing."
As a senior, he was carted off the field with what appeared to be a serious back injury. Leonard drove him to the emergency room, and his mother, sitting in the stands, feared he was paralyzed. But he was back at practice Monday.
"He was really driven," Shirley said. "He had to be to do the things he did."
Off the field, he was still shy and quiet despite his rising profile around Mount Washington. He dated Dorothy Hoelle, a girl in the class behind him, and his leisure time was spent with her or his friends - Laitta, Tom Boyle and Ralph Green.
"Boyle's father owned a dairy and they had a black Chevy, a convertible. We tooled around in that on the weekends, looking for girls," said Green, who later married Unitas' sister, Shirley.
"John would sit there in the back, didn't say much," Laitta said. "He didn't act like a star. You could barely see him in our high school team photo; he was, like, hiding in the back, behind someone. But it was all different when we were playing. He was the commander out there. If people were talking in the huddle, he'd say, 'Shut up!' "
Joe Chilleo said, "He was a good athlete, but he didn't walk around with a halo over his head or anything like that. He was just another kid in the neighborhood."
A home at Louisville
Carey, his coach, emerged as a strong paternal influence, directing Unitas' search for a college that might be willing to take a chance on a 135-pound "natural." Unitas' heart soared when Carey arranged a tryout at Notre Dame, Unitas' first choice, but to his great dismay, Irish coach Frank Leahy wasn't even in town for the workout. Leahy's assistant, Bernie Crimmins, oversaw the tryout and passed on Unitas.
"Bernie later told me that he liked John as a prospect, but he knew the fans would run them out of town if they brought in a guy weighing 135 pounds," said Frank Gitschier, a Louisville assistant coach.
Before committing to Louisville in the summer of 1951, Unitas briefly agreed to attend the University of Pittsburgh, which had offered him a scholarship. But the offer was withdrawn when Unitas flunked an entrance exam.