Larger than life even when he played, John Unitas was hailed yesterday as one of the NFL's fiercest competitors, greatest leaders and toughest quarterbacks.
"He was the greatest quarterback ever to play, not because of his arm, but what was inside his stomach," said Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants and former executive with the Baltimore Colts.
Football fans in other cities may debate which quarterback is the greatest ever, but there is no debate in Baltimore. Unitas, who died yesterday at the age of 69 from a heart attack, left a legacy that extended far beyond the back-to-back championship teams he quarterbacked in 1958 and 1959.
"He was the first of the great modern quarterbacks," said former Colts coach Don Shula, "and his performance set the standard for everyone who followed him at that position."
NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue credits Unitas with playing a key role in the burgeoning popularity of the league with his performance in the 1958 overtime championship victory against the Giants.
"Johnny Unitas will always be a legendary name in NFL history," Tagliabue said. "One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, he epitomized the position with his leadership skills and his ability to perform under pressure. At a time when national television was beginning to focus on the NFL, Johnny U. captured the public's imagination and helped drive the growing popularity of professional football."
Unitas was universally respected by his peers and the generation of offensive minds who followed him.
"We all mourn the loss of one of, if not the greatest, football player of all time," said Bill Walsh, who won three Super Bowls with the San Francisco 49ers and coached a Hall of Fame quarterback of his own in Joe Montana. "Johnny Unitas personified the spirit of the game and was truly a great champion. It was an honor to have known him and to have admired his brilliance."
Unitas' leadership was ever-present, either on the field or off it. Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson was a rookie receiver with the Colts in 1959 and roomed with Unitas on the road trips.
"His intense competitiveness and complete control of the huddle were his greatest assets because the players knew he was in total control," Richardson said.
"I'm shocked and heartbroken. My wife and I had a unique and wonderful relationship with John. ... My recollections go way beyond football. From a personal perspective, he had the biggest impact on me because we would not have won the championship without him."
And without the championship game check he used to start a lucrative restaurant business, Richardson likely would not be the owner of the Panthers today.
Former Colts linebacker Mike Curtis knew Unitas on a different level. Unitas' wife, Sandra, is godmother to Curtis' oldest son, Clay, 28, who lives in Tampa, Fla. It was Clay who called Curtis yesterday to tell him of the quarterback's death.
"John's kind of like Baltimore," Curtis said. "He's got some warts on him, and he's kind of plain-spoken, but he's almost identical to Baltimore's personality. It's funny, but you have the 9/11 anniversary that tore the fabric of the nation. Now, another thing tears the fabric of the old Baltimore Colts family."
Shula gives Unitas credit not only for helping spread the popularity of the NFL with the 1958 championship game, but also for changing the way the game was played.
"I always felt that he invented the two-minute drill," Shula said. "He seemed to have a clock in his head and always knew how much time he had to work with.
"That skill was most evident in the NFL championship game in 1958, when he beat the Giants in overtime in a game that captured the country's attention and helped make the NFL the premier sports league in America."
Accorsi said Unitas met his destiny on that afternoon in Yankee Stadium.
"Destiny thrust him into a certain position in the largest city in the United States, in the biggest stadium in the United States, and he excelled in that position," Accorsi said. "I think he was a guiding light to take the game from almost second level to college football to the major leagues."
Accorsi chuckled at his earliest memory of Unitas. It was the Colts' first preseason game in 1956, a year after he had been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers without ever getting into a game.
"I saw him throw his first pass in the NFL, saw the first preseason game he ever played," Accorsi said. "The Colts opened the preseason in Hershey [Pa.], my hometown, and I was a Colt fan. They had George Shaw then, but they took him out early and put Unitas in.
"I never heard of Unitas. I paid $2.50 to see this game, and I got a guy who the PA announcer couldn't say his name. The guy sitting next to me said, 'It's OK, he threw seven touchdown passes in the blue-white game - four for the blue, three for the white.'"
Accorsi said Unitas was the toughest person physically or mentally he has ever been around.
"I asked him one time, 'Do you think we'd have won Super Bowl III if you started the game?' " Accorsi said. "He said, 'I didn't need that much time.' "
Then there was the victory in 1970 at Houston, when Unitas hit Roy Jefferson with a touchdown pass as time expired.
"I couldn't believe my eyes," said Accorsi, who was public relations director at the time. "But he turned around toward the bench with the ball in the air and did not see Jefferson catch the ball.
"On the plane home, I asked him if he saw Jefferson had the ball. He said, 'No, I threw the ball perfectly; I couldn't catch it for him.' "