"One of my brothers was driving, and he started talking to Unitas," Art Rooney Jr. said. "After they pulled away, my father said, 'Who was that?' When he heard it was Unitas, he asked my brother to catch up to him. At the next light, my father called out, 'Hey, Unitas!' John said, 'Oh, hi, Mr. Rooney.' And my dad said, 'I hope you become the greatest football player in the world.' Then my dad turned around and gave Kiesling a dirty look."
Cleveland Browns coach Paul Brown had told Unitas he might be invited to training camp in 1956. But Colts general manager Don Kellett phoned in February, and Unitas came to Baltimore for a tryout at Clifton Park in May. He tried out with one of his teammates from the Bloomfield Rams, a former Wake Forest lineman named Jim Deglau.
"Unitas' uncle told him not to come," Deglau recalled. "His uncle was worried that if he came down and the Colts passed on him, it would look bad."
How the Colts heard about Unitas later became a source of controversy. Kellett said he came across Unitas' name on a waiver list and "it rang a bell." Colts coach Weeb Ewbank said he received a letter from a fan of the Bloomfield Rams. Chuck "Bear" Rogers said his wife wrote the Colts about Unitas.
However it happened, Unitas and Deglau soon found themselves motoring to Baltimore. Rogers said he loaned them the gas money for the trip. Deglau said he and Unitas "dug into our pockets" to pay for the trip.
"We went down one afternoon, slept somewhere, got up the next morning and worked out," Deglau said. "John got a job out of it."
Did he ever.
Within months, he had replaced injured George Shaw as the Colts' starting quarterback.
Within three years, he had led the Colts to an NFL championship.
Within five years, he was regarded as football's finest quarterback.
'Yep, that's John'
In Mount Washington, at Louisville and in Bloomfield, his family, friends and former teammates and classmates watched in amazement and cheered.
"There was only one guy in Mount Washington who had said John was going to make it big, a guy named Bob Joseph," recalled Joe Chilleo, Unitas' high school classmate. "We all told Bob he was crazy. Then we ran into him after John was with the Colts and he said, 'I told you Unitas was going to make it!' "
Unitas was, of course, infinitely more polished and adept than he had been at St. Justin. Yet in many ways, he was no different. Tough. Accurate. Poised.
"Didn't look like a star until the game started," his sister Shirley said.
"When they started writing about what he was like with the Colts, we read it and said, 'Yep, that's John,' " said Ron Petrelli, his teammate at St. Justin.
He was still the quiet, hard-nosed, hard-luck kid who had shoveled coal, grown up without a father, taken a beating on dusty fields and attended the only college that wanted him.
But his luck had changed.
Against towering odds, his seventh-grade dream had come true.
Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.