Excerpts from columns about John Unitas from around the country:
Bernie Miklasz, St. Louis Post-Dispatch: I can close my eyes and still see him, wearing those black high-top shoes, walking slowly to the line of scrimmage, biding his time so he could size up the defense. And there was never a doubt that John Unitas would come up with the right play, make the epic pass and find a way to get his Baltimore Colts out of danger and into the end zone. Teams never beat Unitas. He just ran out of time.I'd sit there as a kid, from my seat in Section 32 at Baltimore's old Memorial Stadium, surrounded by my father and grandfather and uncles and cousins. I fell in love with the sport during those sweet autumn days of family and football, and it was all because of Unitas. Every boy in Baltimore wanted to grow up to be No. 19. We got our hair trimmed into a crew cut, just to look like him. We'd wear our black high-tops, just to walk like him. And in the backyard football games, we emulated him, pretending to throw the ball to Raymond Berry. ...I'm 43 years old, and I know that I shouldn't be frothing over like this. But there is a reason I became a sportswriter. I couldn't throw a football worth a damn, but John Unitas inspired me with his Sunday afternoon deeds. ...Dad, this is another Johnny U. story for you to read, and I just wish I could have provided a happier ending.
Dan Shaughnessy, Boston Globe: John Lennon said, "Before Elvis, there was nothing." That was pretty much the state of the NFL before Johnny Unitas. ...He arrived out of central casting, a Pennsylvania kid with a flat-top haircut and black, high-top shoes. He was a shot-and-a-beer guy in a hardscrabble league. It all worked. He threw flat, hard passes and had more confidence than anyone who had ever played the game. He called his own plays. And he became the greatest quarterback in NFL history.
Dave Anderson, New York Times: Anybody who was at Yankee Stadium in the dusk of that late afternoon in 1958 will never forget how Johnny Unitas heisted the NFL championship that the New York Giants thought they had won.[In overtime, Unitas] moved the Colts to the Giants' 8-yard line. On second down, he zipped a sideline pass to tight end Jim Mutscheller, who was stopped at the 1. On the next play, fullback Alan Ameche burst into the end zone for the Colts' 23-17 victory, what some people still consider the greatest game in NFL history.But if that sideline pass to Mutscheller had been intercepted, the Giants' defender would have had a clear run at returning it nearly 100 yards for the winning touchdown. And as Unitas stood at his locker, he was asked if he hadn't risked an interception with that pass. With the same cold eyes that had found his receivers, he turned to his questioner."When you know what you're doing," he said firmly, "you don't get intercepted."Put it on his tombstone. As much as anything else that Johnny Unitas, who died Wednesday at 69, ever did, that line summed him up. ..."Being in the huddle with John," his tight end John Mackey once said, "is like being in the huddle with God."
Brian Schmitz, Orlando Sentinel: No quarterback can come close to the massive legend of Johnny U. And these guys today call themselves quarterbacks?They think they're tough and smart? They think they can run a two-minute drill because it shows up on SportsCenter?They have no clue.They're not Johnny U. ...Quarterbacks will come and go, amass eye-opening statistics and bench-press their offensive guards, but they're all wasting their time. That goes for you, Montana, and you, Marino.The job was done to perfection more than 40 years ago by the most unlikely of men.
David Teel, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.): Before every home game, the Colts ate breakfast at the Holiday Inn, corner of Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road just outside the city limits. Dad knew this because his office was across the street, and, well, word gets around. ...As Dad and I strolled into the restaurant (imagine that today: a pro sports team eating its pre-game meal in a public place), I spotted Unitas immediately, sitting with several teammates.Dad and I ordered eggs over easy for him, pancakes for me. Then, clutching my autograph book and Dad's hand, I nervously approached Unitas' table.What transpired next amazes me still. Unitas not only signed my book, but also passed it around the table. He invited me to sit with him for a moment. He talked to me. ...An hour or so later, Dad and I stood outside the players' entrance at the stadium. Bubba Smith arrived. Tom Matte and Mike Curtis, too. Then Unitas. He recognized me, smiled and signed my book again. Two autographs in one day! Two autographs tucked away in a closet still.
Fifty years ago, an undersized defensive back named Andy Nelson climbed into a car alongside a 25-year-old, fresh-faced quarterback. Was it a Pontiac? A Chevrolet? Tricky thing about time: Just as easily as it can help shape a legacy, it can fade a memory.