It must have been a blind-side tackle that took John Unitas yesterday. The man who made Sudden Death part of the American language would have headed downfield in that determined crablike scuttle of his if he had seen the real thing coming. Anybody could tell you: Give Unitas a few final ticks on the clock, and he could bring triumph out of almost any disaster.
He did it once upon a time, didn't he? Didn't he fade into that pocket long ago in the frozen dusk at Yankee Stadium, and didn't he lead a team called the Baltimore Colts to a world championship after regulation time had run out? Didn't he throw touchdown passes in 47 straight games with behemoths draped all over him? And didn't he swell the collective chest of an entire community that had never before imagined such a sense of pride?
Didn't he? It's all so long ago, and the story's so wondrous that it kills us to see it end. John Unitas didn't just play football, he defined a generation of Baltimoreans. Baltimore was no longer that marble-step city stuck somewhere on a railroad track between New York and Washington. Now it was the place where John Unitas orchestrated miracles across 17 autumns.
He gave Baltimore a new image to see in the mirror. In him, we saw the ordinary man who did extraordinary things, the crew-cut working stiff who put aside a lunch pail and threw footballs across the horizon. Stripped of his uniform, he was a pale, practically albino scarecrow. But, in high-topped shoes and helmet, the scrawny Ray Bolger became the unconquerable John Wayne.
To say his name is to evoke a whole series of snapshots. Unitas finding Raymond Berry in a swirl of dust in that miraculous '58 overtime game; Unitas pulling out some improbable last-minute victory, and then laconically trotting off the field, oblivious to the roar of the adoring crowd; Unitas, tough beyond imagining.
"Out of all those old Colts," I once asked Art Donovan, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle, "who was the toughest you ever saw?"
I imagined he'd say Bill Pellington, the homicidal linebacker, or Don Joyce, who wrestled professionally in the off-season, or maybe Gino "The Giant" Marchetti.
"Unitas," Donovan said without pause. "Because he took the most punishment. And never said a word about it."
Remember? It's 1958, and the Green Bay Packers' John Symank knees Unitas so badly that he badly damaged a lung. Unitas sits out a few games, then returns against the Los Angeles Rams wearing a vest to protect his injury.
On the first series from scrimmage, he heaves a 70-yard touchdown pass to Lenny Moore. Memorial Stadium erupts so loudly you can still hear the echoes. And, above the roar, Chuck Thompson dryly tells his radio audience, "Gosh, how rusty can a guy get?"
That was the year of the first world championship. In '59, he scored two touchdowns in the second title game. And then came the '60 season, when the Colts and Bears went at it late in the year. They were tied for first. Donovan, who served in the South Pacific during World War II, once said, "That game against the Bears in 1960? That was worse than World War II."
With barely a minute remaining, the Colts trailed by a couple of points. Doug Atkins hit Unitas in his backfield and broke Unitas' nose. The Colts called time out, but they couldn't get the bleeding to stop. Jim Parker, the Hall of Fame offensive lineman, remembered years later, "It was awful. You couldn't even look at John's face, it was so busted up. And the blood kept coming. Finally, Alex Sandusky reached down and grabbed a clump of mud and shoved it up Unitas' nose."
Several months back, I asked Unitas about the story. He remembered Coach Weeb Ewbank trying to pull him out of the game.
"You do," Unitas told Ewbank, "and I'll kill you."
Moments later, with seconds left on the clock and tacklers descending on him, Unitas lofted a game-winning touchdown pass to Lenny Moore, who leaped over the Bears' J.C. Caroline in the corner of the end zone.
Over the years, Unitas took some hellacious shots to the body, and paid a price for the rest of his life. He strode like a guy who'd just gotten off a horse. For years, he took physical therapy. A while back, the TV reporter Ron Matz went to Kernan Hospital to interview a couple of the old Colts about a team reunion.
He found Unitas walking into the hospital - with Lenny Moore and Jim Parker. Parker had had a stroke some months earlier. Now, he was leaning on Unitas and Moore for help as the three of them gimped in.
Matz thought about the irony. For years, it was Parker who'd opened the running holes for Moore, and Parker who had protected Unitas as he dropped back to pass. Now it was the two "little" guys protecting him.
"John was the Babe Ruth of the National Football League," said Mike Gibbons, director of the Babe Ruth Museum. He said it the day Unitas donated all his memorabilia to the museum.
"I always felt it should remain here in Baltimore," Unitas said. "People here have always been so gracious to me."
Gracious doesn't cover it. For a whole generation, John Unitas defined a way of life around here. Boys grew up hunching their shoulders because Unitas did. They wore crew cuts like his, and closed their eyes at night and imagined themselves with the number 19 on their jerseys, and the crowd roaring.
The doctors say it was a heart attack that took Unitas. Maybe it wore itself out. For so many years, he gave a whole community its heart, and its sense of a better self.