The Cardinals were at the opposite end of the college football spectrum from Notre Dame and Pitt. They had a fine coach - Frank Camp, a meticulous former high school coach known as "the Little Man" - and had compiled a 26-10-1 record in the four years after World War II, but they didn't belong to the National Collegiate Athletic Association and played their home games at a high school stadium, seldom drawing more than a few thousand fans. They recruited Unitas without seeing him play.
"We didn't have a recruiting budget, couldn't make long-distance phone calls, couldn't do anything," Gitschier said. "What happened was, simply, Coach Camp wasn't happy with the two kids playing quarterback for us in 1950, and he called in the assistant coaches and asked us to ask our kids if they knew of any good high school quarterbacks. I was coaching the freshman team, and this guy on the freshman team had come from Unitas' league in Pittsburgh and mentioned him, said he was as tough as nails and could throw. That's how we heard about Unitas, from a kid on the freshman team."
Gitschier was from Sharon, Pa., west of Pittsburgh, and he went home for the holidays in December 1950, after Louisville's first losing season (3-6-1) under Camp. Camp asked him to take a side trip to visit Unitas.
"I spent about two hours with John and Helen, telling them what we offered and why John should come," said Gitschier, a former Louisville quarterback who was just eight years older than Unitas. "As I was leaving, I made two promises to Helen. I told her John would go to Mass every Sunday, and he would graduate. She smiled. I thought we had a chance."
After Unitas' romances with Notre Dame and Pitt fell through the next spring, Helen sent Gitschier a letter accepting Louisville's scholarship offer.
"We didn't get him because of any great recruiting coup," Gitschier said. "We got him because no one else wanted him."
His arrival in the fall of 1951 was far from kingly. Laitta drove him down to Kentucky in Laitta's "old crate" and dropped him off at White Hall, the football players' dormitory. "It was an old, rundown barracks the Navy had given to the school," Gitschier said. "It was terrible; one toilet, a couple of showers."
Gitschier took Unitas in to meet Camp and go over the practice schedule. "Here was this 135-pound kid with hunched shoulders and bowed legs," Gitschier said. "When John left the room, Camp looked at me and said, 'Boy, you got a project.' "
'Really raw' freshman
Another freshman quarterback, Jerry Nassano, outplayed Unitas in the first weeks of practice. Nassano was from a larger Catholic high school in Kentucky and showed more polish and poise.
"Nassano was 10 times better," Gitschier said. "John was really raw when he got here."
Frustrated, Unitas almost left the program after Camp punished him one day for drinking water after practice.
"We had three-hour practices and the players weren't allowed to drink any water, but John thought it was OK because practice was over," Gitschier said. "Camp yelled out, 'Unitas, that's five laps around the field!' Boy, John was mad. I knew what was about to happen. He was going to go back to William Street. I ran with him and said, 'John, this is what makes you tough.' He finally calmed down."
Gitschier, the backfield coach, drilled Unitas endlessly in the basics: how to set his feet, how to put his hands under the center, how to hold the ball when he dropped back, how to throw a pass without rolling his wrist. Unitas' positive qualities - his work ethic, toughness and football intelligence - emerged.
He was eligible to play as a freshman because the Cardinals weren't members of the NCAA, which barred freshmen, but he watched from the sidelines as the Cardinals won their opener over Wayne State, then lost to Boston University, Cincinnati and Xavier by a combined score of 124-13. Their next game was at St. Bonaventure in Olean, N.Y., and with the Cardinals trailing at halftime 19-0, Camp told Gitschier to get Unitas ready.
"We were desperate," Gitschier said.
Finally, a chance to play
A steady rain was falling, turning the field into a muddy mess, but that didn't stop Unitas from making a remarkable debut. He completed 11 straight passes, including three for touchdowns, as the Cardinals rallied to take a 21-19 lead. St. Bonaventure kicked a field goal as time expired to win, 22-21, but Unitas was the talk of both locker rooms after the game.