It was only a 3-yard pass, hardly worth watching on a highlights film. JohnUnitas, the Colts' rookie quarterback, flipped the ball to his tight end, whofell into the end zone.
The play averted a Baltimore shutout. It also provided a glimpse of apattern 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 wouldevolve into one of the most enduring feats in football.
Forty years ago, Unitas took the field in command of a streak that maynever be equaled: 47 consecutive regular-season NFL games in which he threw atleast one scoring pass. Historians place Unitas' achievement with the loftiestof 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'tdo that day. On Dec. 11, 1960, he failed to throw a scoring pass in a 10-3loss to the Los Angeles Rams, ending the five-year touchdown spree that hadbegun against the same club in 1956.
During that span, he passed for more than 1 1/2 miles, led the Colts to twoNFL championships and launched a career that last year earned him Pro FootballHall of Fame honors as the game's all-time premier quarterback.
Of all Unitas' accomplishments, however, none has been as long-lived - oras easily forgotten - as the 47-gamer. Why don't fans recall the streak?Because it's an anomaly, said Frank Deford, senior contributing writer forSports 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 DanMarino (30 games) came closest - keeps it sheathed in obscurity, Deford said:
"It's the same reason no one remembers baseball's Jack Chesbro winning 41games in one year, or Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points a season inbasketball. Like Unitas, they've gone so far beyond everyone else, they're noteven 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 reallymattered."
He said he didn't care whether he passed, scrambled or handed off for thescore, as long as he got the job done.
At 67, he is as stoop-shouldered as ever. In his prime, Unitas would uncorka 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 10,645yards and 102 touchdowns, more than half of them to Hall of Famers RaymondBerry and Lenny Moore. Seven times, Unitas threw for four TDs in one game. Inone 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 pummelingpassers or receivers.
"John's is one of those records where you just want to stand back andapplaud for what a great one it is," Don Shula said. Shula, pro football'sall-time winningest coach, played with Unitas at the start of that string andcoached him in its aftermath.
He also coached Marino in his heyday. But no quarterback sacrificed himselflike Unitas, said Shula.
"He was so unselfish, and tough, that he'd hang in the pocket and wait andwait until the last possible instant, to give Raymond and Lenny time to getopen. 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 someguys 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 meout of the game," the quarterback said.
The reward went uncollected; The Streak rolled on.
Unitas' record had begun innocently enough, in Los Angeles, with that3-yard toss to Jim Mutscheller. The date was Dec. 9, 1956.
Mutscheller wishes he could recall the play. "I never thought I didanything right in the Coliseum," he said.
Two weeks later, in a season-ending, 19-17 victory over Washington, Unitashit his tight end again, for a 53-yard touchdown with 25 seconds left. Theball ricocheted off the back of a Redskins defender and into Mutscheller'shands for the game-winner.
Unitas came out slinging in 1957: four scores against Detroit in theopener, and 12 touchdown passes in the club's first four games. Colts fanslearned to arrive early, stay late. One week, Unitas raised the curtain with ascoring 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 callingthe 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] neverbroke stride.
"That's talent, man. That's art."
By season's end, Unitas' touchdown string was at 15 games and closing onthe 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 toscore.
Bruised ribs sidelined Unitas for several weeks in midseason. Would herecover? Returning against the Rams, he took the first snap and fired a58-yard touchdown pass to Moore.
Two weeks later, a Unitas-to-Berry pass broke Isbell's record. The Streakrolled on.
"John was the all-time greatest at finding the end zone," said Berry, whocaught 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 thestreak, Unitas threw his 29th scoring pass of 1959, topping the single-seasonrecord held by Chicago's Sid Luckman. Unitas shrugged it off. "Records aremade 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 withless than a minute left. From the Bears' 35, Unitas faded to pass, dodged ablitz, but was tackled by linebacker Bill George.
"I tried to fall to the ground, to call time out, but George had me by bothlegs and was holding me up," Unitas recalled. "Then I saw [defensive end] DougAtkins 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 stuckpig, 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 arare 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 withinjuries, the Colts fell to Los Angeles, 10-3.
Unitas shrugged it off: "Records are made to be broken."
Or not.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun