"The coaches would run the quarterbacks through drills, and sometimes the whistle would blow [ending the drill] before John even got a turn," recalled Art Rooney Sr., son of the Steelers' owner.
"He threw a very, very accurate pass," Butler said.
One of Rooney's sons wrote a long letter to his father urging the team to keep Unitas, who, the son wrote, was easily the best quarterback in camp. The letter didn't help. Unitas didn't play a down in the exhibition season. He got into a few scrimmages, but later told friends in Mount Washington that the Steelers' veteran linemen "opened the door" on him - let in defenders - to keep him from playing well enough to take away a veteran's job.
After the Steelers' final exhibition game, Unitas rode back to camp with Butler. "He told me, 'I think they're going to cut me,' " Butler said. "I said, 'I don't think so. They can't cut you until they give you a shot.' They cut him the next day."
The Steelers gave him bus fare back to Pittsburgh. He dejectedly returned to his in-laws' house, where he was living with Dorothy, who was pregnant with their first child. The Cleveland Browns contacted him about a late tryout, then reneged when All-Pro Otto Graham came out of retirement.
"It was a discouraging time for John. He was struggling, for sure - no job, no house, a kid on the way," said Zangaro, his Louisville teammate, who had returned home.
A semipro star
Zangaro was playing in the semipro Pittsburgh Steel Bowl Conference, in which teams of former high school and college players played hard-knocking games that drew sizable crowds in the football-mad city. He suggested Unitas join his team, the Bloomfield Rams.
"His wife got mad at me. She was worried about him getting hurt," Zangaro said.
Unitas decided to play. The Rams were the league's best team but hardly living high. They kept their equipment in the basement of a dairy in Bloomfield and played their home games at Arensal Field, a grassless plot behind a junior high school that was oiled before games to keep the dust down. Their general manager, coach and quarterback was a stocky former high school star named Chuck "Bear" Rogers.
"Unitas played only on defense in his first game with us; I was still the quarterback," Rogers recalled with a smile. "People later kidded me that I kept Unitas on the bench, but it was just that he didn't know the plays. I made him the quarterback after that first game. It was obvious that he was really good."
The Rams wore black-and-red striped jerseys. Unitas' number was 22. He went both ways, called the plays and led the Rams to the championship.
"He took over the whole team, basically," Rogers said. "He was terrific, did everything, threw the ball all the way across the field on a line."
Day job, night practice
The Rams pounded a team from Arnold, Pa., in the championship. "They were complaining, 'You got a pro quarterback,' " Zangaro recalled.
He was, indeed, a pro - but barely. For most of the season, Rogers had paid him $6 a game, double what most of the other Rams received. "I bumped him up to eight bucks a game late in the season, and then $15 for the championship game," Rogers said. "I didn't tell anyone else I was doing that."
Unitas was bringing home more from his day job, which Zangaro's brother, a union leader, had arranged. He was working as a laborer for a team of pile drivers.
"He'd dig a hole, carry something, do whatever the pile drivers needed," Zangaro said. "He worked during the day, then came by and picked me up in his '46 Buick and drove us to [Rams] practice. We worked out at night."