'Greatest Game' another workday for Johnny U, the modest hero

The final play provided an iconic still image of Ameche scoring, but film of the game shows even more compelling footage of the man who handed him the ball. It was quintessential Unitas. As Ameche broke the plane of the goal line and his teammates began to throw their hands into the air, Unitas can be seen in the background, a place where he didn't mind hanging out. There was no clapping and no jumping. He turned his back on the celebration and calmly walked off the field, his shoulders pulled downward, his gait slightly belabored and his attention already on to something else. His workday had ended.

Feeling unaffected
There was no way for Unitas to know it at the time, but everything was suddenly different. At least it was for football, for the Colts, for the city of Baltimore.

But was it for him?

Unitas revealed almost immediately how long he intended to celebrate his finest day. He was offered $500 to stay the night in New York and appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. He declined. The offer was raised to $750. He declined again. He just wanted to go home with his teammates, he explained, and see his family.

Ameche made the appearance instead, but Unitas did return to New York a week later. As the game's Most Valuable Player - he was 26-for-40 for 349yards and a touchdown - he was awarded a Corvette by Sport magazine. He accepted it graciously and, upon returning home, promptly sold it and bought a station wagon.

"My father was not much for all those things; it was more about him and the camaraderie with his teammates," Unitas Jr says. "He loved football. He loved practices. He was out there because he loved the game. He didn't care about the awards, the individual accomplishments. He knew it was a team game."

Unitas Jr. was just 2 at the time. He says his mother stayed in Baltimore that day, watching him and his sister. He doesn't remember his dad returning home, but in his head, that night was probably like so many others: Dad came home late, tired and sore but instantly forgot he had even played a football game when his children ran and met him at the front door.

"He never acted like it was the high point in his life or anything like that," said Tom Callahan, author of the 2006 biography Johnny U. "He had an exceptional memory, but that doesn't mean he was especially sentimental."

Others can attest to that. John Wayne didn't have time to cry, either.

Accorsi remembers a banquet the night before Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. The speaker pointed to the new inductees and told the crowd, "Take one look at them, because tomorrow they'll be crying like babies." Afterward, a straight-faced Unitas told Accorsi, "I don't know who the hell that guy was talking about me, but it's not going to be me."

"And the next day," Accorsi says, "it wasn't him. No tears, no crack of a voice. That's John. I kept a picture of him in my office with the Giants, you know. Kept it in the back, though, so it wasn't too prominent when the owners came in. And I looked at it whenever things were tough and asked myself, 'How would he handle this?' It was just a head shot, and these steel gray eyes would stare back at me and say, 'Toughen up, Accorsi.'"

As the years passed, Baltimore never stopped talking about the 1958 game. Even when the team was stolen away in the dead of night, the party from that first title never really stopped.

If prompted, for years until his death in 2002, Unitas could recall every play from those final drives. He wouldn't bring it up, though. You had to ask.

"I'm sure, in his heart, he cherished it," says Richard Sammis, a Baltimore businessman and a close friend for 25 years. "It was something that was just a part of his life as a football player. But it wasn't who he was."

Tricky thing about time: Just as easily as it can fade a memory, it can help shape a legacy. History shows that 30,000 people greeted the Colts at the airport that night 50 years ago. They climbed atop the bus and partied as never before. When the fans finally cleared and the television cameras left, the bus returned to Memorial Stadium, where the players dispersed.

Johnny U and Andy Nelson drove together. Was it a Pontiac? Maybe a Chevrolet. Doesn't matter.

They drove in near silence. The radio was probably playing.

Unitas dropped off Nelson. No congrats. No pats on the back.

"I'll see you tomorrow," Unitas said.

online

Discuss this story and others in our talk forums
Most recent sports talk forum topics:
More sports talk forums: Orioles | Ravens | Pro Sports | College | Lacrosse | High School | Outdoors
Note: In-story commenting has been temporarily disabled due to technical issues. We are working to correct the issue and will bring back this feature in the future. In the meantime, please use our talk forums to discuss stories.

Talk about it
Join other sports fans on our Ravens message board SUBSCRIBE TO THIS FEED

PHOTO GALLERIES

  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram
  • Google Plus
  • RSS Feeds
  • Mobile Alerts and Apps

RAVENS & FOOTBALL VIDEOS

SPORTS PICTURES

Orioles pre-ALDS workout [Pictures]

Orioles pre-ALDS workout

Orioles prepare for postseason play [Pictures]

Orioles' playoff prep

Welcome to The Baltimore Sun's Ravens game story database. Use the search prompts below for access to Baltimore Sun stories for every game in Ravens history.