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Streak for the ages

Unitas: Forty years ago, one of sports' most amazing, but little-known, streaks ended when the Colts quarterback failed to throw for a touchdown

By Mike Klingaman

Sun Staff

December 10, 2000

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It was only a 3-yard pass, hardly worth watching on a highlights film. John Unitas, the Colts' rookie quarterback, flipped the ball to his tight end, who fell into the end zone.

The play averted a Baltimore shutout. It also provided a glimpse of a pattern that would come to grip Colts fans for much of the next five seasons: Unitas passing for touchdowns, game after game, a seamless stretch that would evolve into one of the most enduring feats in football.

Forty years ago, Unitas took the field in command of a streak that may never be equaled: 47 consecutive regular-season NFL games in which he threw at least one scoring pass. Historians place Unitas' achievement with the loftiest of sports records, such as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Unitas' skein because of what he didn't do that day. On Dec. 11, 1960, he failed to throw a scoring pass in a 10-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, ending the five-year touchdown spree that had begun against the same club in 1956.

During that span, he passed for more than 1 1/2 miles, led the Colts to two NFL championships and launched a career that last year earned him Pro Football Hall of Fame honors as the game's all-time premier quarterback.

Of all Unitas' accomplishments, however, none has been as long-lived - or as easily forgotten - as the 47-gamer. Why don't fans recall the streak? Because it's an anomaly, said Frank Deford, senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and a commentator for National Public Radio.

"Unitas' record is so outstanding that, to many, it simply doesn't exist," said Deford, a native Baltimorean. "It's the tree-falling-in-the-forest thing. If no one is there to threaten the record, then nobody talks about it."

The fact that no one has made a real run at Unitas' mark - Miami's Dan Marino (30 games) came closest - keeps it sheathed in obscurity, Deford said:

"It's the same reason no one remembers baseball's Jack Chesbro winning 41 games in one year, or Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points a season in basketball. Like Unitas, they've gone so far beyond everyone else, they're not even on people's radar."

Looking back, Unitas downplayed the milestone, now as then.

"I never paid much attention to records - that was for the newspaper guys," he said last week. "All I cared about was winning. Nothing else really mattered."

He said he didn't care whether he passed, scrambled or handed off for the score, as long as he got the job done.

At 67, he is as stoop-shouldered as ever. In his prime, Unitas would uncork a throw for a touchdown, then trot off the field with the gait of a geezer. His age has caught up with his gait.

Signing autographs is a pain; so is cutting a steak. The nerves in Unitas' right hand are shot, a reminder of the passes he threw, the poundings he took, the plaudits he received.

In the course of the 47-game streak, Unitas completed 697 passes for 10,645 yards and 102 touchdowns, more than half of them to Hall of Famers Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore. Seven times, Unitas threw for four TDs in one game. In one remarkable season (1959), he passed for at least two scores in every game.

All of this in an era when defenders were seldom flagged for pummeling passers or receivers.

"John's is one of those records where you just want to stand back and applaud for what a great one it is," Don Shula said. Shula, pro football's all-time winningest coach, played with Unitas at the start of that string and coached him in its aftermath.

He also coached Marino in his heyday. But no quarterback sacrificed himself like Unitas, said Shula.

"He was so unselfish, and tough, that he'd hang in the pocket and wait and wait until the last possible instant, to give Raymond and Lenny time to get open. Then he'd deliver on target, knowing he was going to take the big hit," Shula said.

"Then he'd get back up and do it again."

If the streak defined Unitas, it also marked him for reprisals.

"John really took some shots," said Buzz Nutter, Colts center. "I saw some guys who should have been locked up for the way they hit him."

Once, in exasperation, the Chicago Bears put a bounty on Unitas' head.

"Coach George Halas offered $500 to anyone on the team who could knock me out of the game," the quarterback said.

The reward went uncollected; The Streak rolled on.

Unitas' record had begun innocently enough, in Los Angeles, with that 3-yard toss to Jim Mutscheller. The date was Dec. 9, 1956.

Mutscheller wishes he could recall the play. "I never thought I did anything right in the Coliseum," he said.

Two weeks later, in a season-ending, 19-17 victory over Washington, Unitas hit his tight end again, for a 53-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left. The ball ricocheted off the back of a Redskins defender and into Mutscheller's hands for the game-winner.

Unitas came out slinging in 1957: four scores against Detroit in the opener, and 12 touchdown passes in the club's first four games. Colts fans learned to arrive early, stay late. One week, Unitas raised the curtain with a scoring bomb; the next, he brought down the house with a last-minute pass.

His singlemindedness afield became legend.

"The guy was in complete charge, not like today where [coaches] are calling the shots," said Moore. "And John didn't just wing the ball, like some do now. He could drill it, float it, or arch it over a defender. We [receivers] never broke stride.

"That's talent, man. That's art."

By season's end, Unitas' touchdown string was at 15 games and closing on the hoary mark of 23 set by Green Bay's Cecil Isbell in 1942.

That record would fall in a footnote to Baltimore's championship of 1958.

The Colts opened by beating Detroit on a pass from Unitas to Berry, whom, The Sun said, "spun like a hula hoop" and broke free of three tacklers to score.

Bruised ribs sidelined Unitas for several weeks in midseason. Would he recover? Returning against the Rams, he took the first snap and fired a 58-yard touchdown pass to Moore.

Two weeks later, a Unitas-to-Berry pass broke Isbell's record. The Streak rolled on.

"John was the all-time greatest at finding the end zone," said Berry, who caught 38 touchdowns in that span. "The reason? He called his own game - and [coach] Weeb Ewbank had enough brilliance to let John's instincts take over."

The magic would last 23 more games, or two more years. In Game 36 of the streak, Unitas threw his 29th scoring pass of 1959, topping the single-season record held by Chicago's Sid Luckman. Unitas shrugged it off. "Records are made to be broken," he said.

In Game 43, a rout of Dallas, he completed five passes in the first half - four for touchdowns. He added four touchdowns the next week against Green Bay, three in the first 20 minutes.

The best was yet to come. In Game 45, the Colts trailed Chicago 20-17 with less than a minute left. From the Bears' 35, Unitas faded to pass, dodged a blitz, but was tackled by linebacker Bill George.

"I tried to fall to the ground, to call time out, but George had me by both legs and was holding me up," Unitas recalled. "Then I saw [defensive end] Doug Atkins racing over yelling, `Hold his --- till I get there!' "

George cooperated. Atkins slammed into his target. Unitas crumpled.

Even now, remembering the hit makes Lenny Moore shudder.

"We thought we'd lost John," he said. "His face was bleeding like a stuck pig, but that joker wouldn't leave the field."

Next, on fourth down with 17 seconds left, Unitas backpedaled, double-pumped and fired a strike to Moore, 7 yards deep in the end zone. In a rare burst of emotion, Unitas leaped in the air, flailing his bloody arms. Colts, 24-20.

Two games later, The Streak was over. Their receivers riddled with injuries, the Colts fell to Los Angeles, 10-3.

Unitas shrugged it off: "Records are made to be broken."

Or not.

Sun staff researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Consecutive games with a TD pass

Player, Team........................Years........Streak

John Unitas, Baltimore......1956-60....47

Dan Marino, Miami...............1985-87....30

Dave Krieg, Seattle..............1983-85....28

Chris Chandler, Atlanta......1997-99....27

Peyton Manning, Indianapolis...1998-99...27

The Unitas streak game by game

During John Unitas' 47-game touchdown streak, he completed 697 passes for 10,645 yards and 102 touchdowns. A look at each game (Colts score listed first):

......Date.......Opponent/Score..........Com-Att....Yds....TD.......TD receivers

1.....12/9/56......at Rams, 7-31.............14-29........147.......1........Mutscheller

2.....12/16/56....at 49ers, 17-30...........11-16........124.......1.........Berry

3.....12/23/56....Redskins, 19-17........10-18........161.......1.........Mutscheller

4......9/27/57......Lions, 34-14..............14-23 241...........4.... DuPre (2), .......................................................................................................Mutscheller,

Berry

5.....10/5/57.......Bears, 21-10..............17-26........184.......2.. Mutscheller, Ameche

6...10/13/57...at Packers (Mil.), 45-17...7-17......130.......2....Mutscheller (2)

7...10/20/57.. at Lions, 27-31.........16-21.........239..4...Mutscheller (2), Moore (2)

8...10/27/57.....Packers, 21-24......16-31.........188..........2 ........Berry, Moore

9...1/3/57......... Steelers, 13-19........ 2-9...........56............1............Berry

10...11/10/57....at Redskins, 21-17...17-30....247...........2...........Berry (2)

11..11/17/57....at Bears, 29-14........11-23.... 245..........1..........Mutscheller

12..11/24/57.... 49ers, 27-21...........16-25......230..........1...........Ameche

13..12/1/57...... Rams, 31-14..........18-30.......271.........3 .......Moore (2), Berry

14..12/8/57.......at 49ers, 13-17...... 23-37......296........1......... Moore

15..12/15/57.....at Rams, 21-37......14-29......223........1..........Moore

16...9/28/58.......Lions, 28-15...........23-43......250.......2...........Berry (2)

17..10/4/58......Bears, 51-38........10-23...198.....4.....Moore (2), Berry, Mutscheller< 18...10/12/58..at Packers (Mil.), 24-17....16-35... 238...1.......Mutscheller

19...10/19/58...at Lions, 40-14...11-17.........221.........1..........Mutscheller

20...10/26/58...Redskins, 35-10..... 8-15.......183........2..........Berry (2)

21...11/2/58.....Packers, 56-0...........5-16.........99....... 2.........Moore, Ameche

22...11/23/58...Rams, 34-7..............12-18......218........2......Moore, Mutscheller

23...11/30/58...49ers, 35-27.............17-33.....229........1.......Berry

24...12/6/58.....at Rams, 28-30.........23-38.....214.......3 Berry, Moore, ....................................................................................................Mutscheller

25...12/14/58...at 49ers, 12-21........11-25......157.......1.... Mutscheller

26....9/27/59....Lions, 21-9...............13-30......230.......2....Mutscheller, Berry

27...10/3/59.....Bears, 21-26...........17-38..........221.......3.....Mutscheller (2), Berry

28...10/11/59... at Lions, 31-24......13-25.........257........3.....Moore, Mutscheller, .........................................................................................................Berry

29...10/18/59....at Bears, 21-7........16-30.........233.......2....... Moore, DuPre

30...10/25/59.... Packers, 38-21.....19-29 ........206...... 3....... Berry (2), Ameche

31....11/1/59......Browns, 31-38..... 23-41.........397......4........ Moore, Richardson,...........................................................................................................Berry,

Mutscheller

32....11/8/59......at Redskins, 24-27....15-35.... 265.....2 ........Mutscheller (2)

33....11/15/59... at Packers (Mil.), 28-24...19-33...324..3.... Berry (2), Mutscheller 34....11/22/59.... 49ers, 45-14........10-19.....141.... 2..............Berry, Moore

35....11/29/59.....Rams, 35-21.......14-24......242.....2..............Berry, Moore

36....12/5/59.......at 49ers, 35-14....21-36......273.....3..............Berry (2), Moore

37....12/12/59.....at Rams, 45-26....13-27.....110.....3........Berry (2), Richardson

38.....9/25/60......Redskins, 20-0....17-35.....232.....1........Berry

39....10/2/60......Bears, 42-7............14-27...... 307...4........ Moore (2), Berry, .....................................................................................................Mutscheller

40....10/7/60.......at Packers, 21-35...16-31....216...1.........Hawkins

41....10/16/60.....Rams, 31-17............12-23....176....1........Moore

42....10/23/60.....at Lions, 17-30........20-40....253....2.......Berry, Mutscheller

43....10/30/60.....at Cowboys, 45-7... 8-16.....270....4 ......Berry (3), Moore

44....11/6/60........Packers, 38-24....... 20-29....324... 4......Berry (3), Hawkins

45....11/13/60......at Bears, 24-20........16-33.... 266... 2 .....Moore (2)

46....11/27/60..... 49ers, 22-30............16-30...... 356... 3 ....Berry, Hawkins, Moore

47... 12/4/60 ........Lions, 15-20........... 22-40...... 357...2 .........Moore (2)

Source: Pro Football Hall of Fame

Active streaks

Longest current streaks for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass:

No......Quarterback...............Team

16........ Trent Green................Rams

13........Peyton Manning.........Colts

12........ Daunte Culpepper......Vikings

9.......... Brian Griese.................Broncos

6......... Mark Brunell............... Jaguars

5.......... Jon Kitna....................Seahawks

5........... Rich Gannon..............Raiders

Source: NFL