When John Unitas was in seventh grade at a Catholic grade school in the hard hills south of downtown Pittsburgh, his teacher asked each of the students in his class what they wanted to be when they grew up.
A pro football player, Unitas said.
His dream didn't just come true; Unitas was widely recognized as the greatest quarterback who ever played when he died last month at age 69, having experienced a life of accomplishment and glory beyond even a child's wildest imaginings.
Until he broke in with the Baltimore Colts as a rookie in 1956, however, his dream was laughably impossible to envision. Unitas was a fatherless child of the Depression, a 135-pound high school star and a bowlegged quarterback on outmanned teams at the University of Louisville, tough but obscure, talented but luckless, seemingly destined to exist outside the mainstream that funneled players to the NFL.
He had the high-top cleats, buzz haircut, golden arm, innate confidence and no-nonsense demeanor that would later define him to generations of football fans, but his surroundings were modest, his audience was sparse and his prospects were dim.
"He had within him all of the amazing qualities that were later exposed, but they didn't get a chance to show themselves," said his cousin Joe Unitas.
Yet Unitas' dream never wavered, remaining obvious most clearly to his mother, brother and two sisters.
"You couldn't help but see it: Every book he ever got out of the library was a book about a quarterback," said his younger sister, Shirley. "He was always reading something like The Sid Luckman Story. All he wanted was football."
Unitas' sister, cousin and many of his former classmates, neighborhood friends and teammates still reside in the Pittsburgh area and were recently interviewed by The Sun for this story. They described a young Unitas who kept his football ambitions to himself other than the day when his teacher asked.
Voicing such a fanciful, faraway aspiration simply wasn't appropriate in an environment in which money was scarce.
Needs vs. wants
"My mother was raising four kids by herself," Shirley said. "She had a saying: 'If it's a need, we can talk about it, but if it's a want, don't bring it up.' "
Money, food and clothes were needs. Everything else was a want.
"Our street wasn't paved and our neighborhood was rough," Shirley said. "Your dreams were more basic. You dreamed about making a little more money."
"It was a million miles away," said Joe Chilleo, who lived up the street from Unitas and went to school with him. "You can look back now and see that John wanted something and was very, very driven to achieve it. But no one talked about it or thought about it at the time. Pro football was just too far from our world."
The Unitases' circumstances weren't as difficult when John was born in 1933. His father, Francis, operated a coal delivery service that enabled the family to live in a new home in Brookline, one of Pittsburgh's better suburban neighborhoods. Francis and his wife, Helen, had four children over a seven-year span. Leonard was six years older than John. Millicent was four years older. Shirley was born a year after John.
Francis was a strong, athletic Lithuanian who had survived a difficult childhood. Consigned to a Pittsburgh orphanage with twin brothers, he was left alone when one twin died of influenza and the other died hopping a freight train. When he turned 16, he left the orphanage and set out to find other members of his family. His search took him to Century, W.Va., a coal-mining enclave where he met a Lithuanian immigrant named Helen Superfisky. They married and settled in Pittsburgh.
At 6 feet and 170 pounds, Francis had played baseball well enough to attract pro scouts until a foot injury curtailed his career. Legend had it that he had once won a bet by lifting the back wheels of his coal delivery truck from the gutter to the sidewalk. He was living out the American Dream, providing for his family with his pair of trucks that delivered coal used to heat homes.
Then he contracted pneumonia and died in a hospital at age 38.
John was 4.
"My father's kidneys 'locked' and uremic poisoning went through," Shirley said. "It was the kind of thing dialysis would prevent today."
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.
The caliber of football wasn't great - the scores of many games weren't even reported in the local papers - and St. Justin was just a .500 team. The school dropped football several years after Unitas left. But he developed a following while he was there. Hundreds of fans flocked to Moore Field to see him throw his trademark "jump pass."
"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."
His wore a green-and-gold uniform, a gold helmet and uniform number 18. His center was a classmate named James Laitta who weighed maybe 100 pounds.
"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.
That left Louisville as his only option.
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.
'Boy, you got a project'
"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.
"We weren't going anywhere without him, that's for sure," Camp told reporters. "If he keeps throwing the ball like that, he'll do us a lot of good."
He did more than just "a lot of good" in the Cardinals' remaining games that season, leading them to four straight victories. He threw four touchdown passes, including one for 92 yards, as Louisville beat Houston as a 19-point underdog. North Carolina State, with future pro star Alex Webster playing tailback, went down in a snowstorm, 26-2. Victories over Washington & Lee and Southern Mississippi gave the Cardinals a 5-4 final record.
Nassano, Unitas' competition at quarterback, transferred to Western Kentucky. Unitas was a star. He played safety on defense as well as quarterback, exhibiting a nose for the ball and a willingness to hit. He was the first player on the field for practice, and often the last to leave.
"Coach Camp fell in love with him," Gitschier said. "And what wasn't there to love? John was the first of those lunch-pail quarterbacks to come out of Western Pennsylvania. Later on came Jim Kelly and Dan Marino and Joe Namath and Joe Montana. They were all the same. Guys who didn't have anything. Guys who knew that it was back to the steel mills or coal mines if they didn't get the job done."
High hopes laid low
Louisville built its marketing campaign for the 1952 football season around Unitas. "Come See Unitas Pass!" advertisements read. The Cardinals won their first two games, including a 41-14 victory over Florida State in which Unitas completed 17 of 22 passes. Improbably, he was 6-0 as a starting college quarterback.
The rest of his Louisville career was a study in defeat and frustration.
The Cardinals lost five of their last six games in 1952, unable to match the overall talent of more prestigious teams, and then the program all but collapsed around Unitas in the ensuing offseason. The administration and athletic department were tussling over scholarships, academics and the importance of football. Fifteen starters left school. Camp had to fight to keep the program alive.
Bernie Crimmins, the coach who had turned down Unitas as a Notre Dame prospect, had become head coach at Indiana and offered Unitas a scholarship. Unitas was tempted but stayed at Louisville out of loyalty to Camp.
"His attitude was, 'They wanted me when no one else did, so I'm sticking with them,' " Gitschier said.
The new football marketing slogan was "Unitas We Stand, Divided We Fall," and the outmanned Cardinals fell hard. They went 1-7 in 1953 and 3-6 in 1954, losing 59-6 to Tennessee, 59-0 to Florida State, 41-0 to Cincinnati and 44-6 to Chattanooga. Their overall record in Unitas' four seasons was 12-22.
"It was terrible; we were suiting up guys who couldn't even play on their high school teams," said Gitschier, who later became an FBI agent and still runs Unitas' Louisville-based charity organization. "John was all we had."
In the loss to Tennessee in 1953, Unitas rushed for 52 yards, completed nine passes, scored the Cardinals' lone touchdown, returned punts and kickoffs, led the defense in tackles, and handled the punting. The Tennessee fans gave him a standing ovation near the end of the game, and Vols coach Harvey Robinson called him the best quarterback they had played all season.
Skepticism from pros
Just days after his last game at Louisville, Unitas married Dorothy Hoelle, his high school sweetheart, on Nov. 20, 1954. He graduated on time with a bachelor of science degree in physical education the next spring, having survived a stint on academic probation.
Money was tight, but Unitas always found a way to get by. In May 1955, he and a Cardinals teammate from Pittsburgh, Fred Zangaro, made $150 in tips serving mint juleps to horse racing fans in the bar of Louisville's Brown Derby restaurant the night before the Kentucky Derby. They then added to their earnings, betting $5 across the board on Swaps, the horse that won the Derby the next day.
The time for Unitas to realize his long-standing dream of playing pro football was at hand, but the skepticism and disdain he had experienced after high school recurred. "Scouts and coaches knew he was good and recognized that he stood a chance of making it if he ever got a real shot, but they also looked at him, weighing maybe 170 pounds, and said, 'Where's he going to go? Who's going to give him that shot?' " Zangaro said.
In the NFL draft, his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers ended up selecting him in the ninth round, a long shots' home from which few players made rosters.
No shot with Steelers
He reported to the Steelers' training camp at St. Bonaventure, but it soon became clear the coaches were uninterested. The Steelers were habitual also-rans under coach Walt Kiesling, but veteran Jim Finks was entrenched as the starting quarterback. Ted Marchibroda, a former first-round pick who later became head coach of the NFL's Colts and Ravens, was given the backup quarterback's job when he returned from the service in the middle of camp. Another rookie quarterback, Vic Eaton, was ahead of Unitas because he was a better punter.
"He didn't get much attention to begin with, and once Marchibroda came back, you knew they weren't going to keep him," said Jack Butler, a Pittsburgh native who played defensive back for the Steelers in the '50s and took Unitas under his wing in camp.
"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.
Bored, Unitas stayed after practice and threw to anyone willing to run routes for him. Butler and the owners' sons, who were camp ball boys, were among his targets.
"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."
One evening, Unitas was in his car, stopped at a light, when another car pulled up alongside with Art Rooney Sr. in front and Steelers coach Kiesling in back.
"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."
A call from the Colts
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.
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