By John Steadman
Baltimore Sun columnist
October 5, 1997
Their impeccable white-fenced sanctuary is located in the Long Green Valley, affording a grand vista of the Maryland countryside, away from the public glare but, at the same time, not so private that it's a self-imposed isolation.
Sons Joey and Chad are away at college; daughter Paige is a student at St. Paul's School For Girls. And the most famous player in the history of the Baltimore Colts and the consummate quarterback, the best the NFL has ever known, is recovering from surgery to an arm that was once so lethal it shot holes in otherwise airtight defenses, created an effusion of points and caused scoreboards to short-circuit.
Unitas was a talent unto himself. Physically strong, mentally alert, quietly defiant in the face of all challenges and beyond intimidation. Respected by the men on the other side of the scrimmage line, as well as revered by teammates. A guard named Art Spinney, who played to his left, referred to him as the "meal ticket." To halfback Lenny Moore he was simply "Johnny U." At the moment, Unitas is a Colt in harness, wearing a protective case around his right arm, from wrist to mid-biceps, and facing at least three months of therapy with the hope that some percentage of normal strength will eventually return to a limb that progressively went limp.
The complex surgery, performed by Dr. Andrew Eglseder at the University of Maryland Hospital Medical Systems, took five hours and involved repairing and relocating ligaments, removing bone fragments and moving the ulnar nerve to its proper location.
The injury that triggered the belated trauma was suffered in 1968 in the final game of the preseason, when Unitas leaned away to avoid an all-out rush from the Dallas Cowboys and, in trying to get under the pressure to deliver a pass with a sidearm delivery, had the flexor and pronator muscles torn from their track by the intensity of the hit.
It was the season in which he would come back to throw only 32 passes, and his replacement, Earl Morrall, became the NFL's Most Valuable Player. And there was the journey to Super Bowl III -- a long afternoon for the Colts as they lost to the New York Jets, 16-7, in one of the most momentous upsets in NFL history.
Now, almost three decades later, the residual results of the damage caused his right arm to lose strength. Near paralysis.
"I couldn't hold a cup of coffee or pick up a pen to sign my name," he explained. "I wasn't able to grip a golf club, carry a suitcase or even lift a knife or fork."
Now, after the surgical phase, all he can do is proceed with rehabilitation, under the direction of his longtime friend and physical therapist, Bill Neill, at Kernan Hospital, and await improvement.
He has two artificial knees from earlier operations, which he says "work fine," and a plastic replacement for a middle-finger knuckle that he first shattered when he hit a player's helmet while following through on a pass. An artificial joint had been inserted, but while splitting wood for the fireplace the pressure of swinging the ax caused the replacement knuckle to break.
Then, don't forget the quadruple bypass heart surgery in 1993 that became a life-or-death situation when he was in the hospital for what was expected to be a slightly more than routine knee operation.
Career worth the pain
The pertinent question for Unitas was first asked by his son, John Jr., who is in charge of Unitas Management Corp.
"Young Johnny wanted to know if I thought all these problems were worth playing 18 years of pro football," said his father. "My reaction is, I wonder where I would be without playing football. I guess I'd be teaching school. That's what I went to the University of Louisville for, to get a degree in teaching.
"That would have been a useful way to make a living. With my arm that went bad, the X-rays never showed the extent of the injury or the aftermath of the cortisone shots I took at the time.
"Dr. Eglseder mentioned, after what he found, that he didn't know how I was able to play the last four or five seasons. The ligaments just reattached themselves where they weren't supposed to be, and I guess I made the best of the situation. Maybe that was nature taking over. A lot of NFL players are having problems in later life. Nothing new about that."
Unitas, looking out on his 19 acres (symbolic of the jersey number he wore), seemed more reflective and contemplative than usual. Outside, beyond the house, three dogs romped, two goats charged about their playpen and, at the far end of the property, a herd of white-faced Herefords huddled under shade trees. And the surrounding flower gardens were in fall bloom.
Unitas, meanwhile, was enjoying talking about how it was to play hard and then go out and drink a cold beer with a teammate or a rival from the other side of the scrimmage line.
He was nudged into discussing the infamous mistake the Pittsburgh Steelers made in 1955 when, after drafting him, a hometown product, in the ninth round, they never gave him a chance to play in a single exhibition. Then, just like that, he was cut loose.
"I remember I was in all the scrimmages and went against the first-string defense in practices all the time, but coach Walt Kiesling wouldn't let me play in a game.
"We were playing an exhibition in Miami against the Detroit Lions. I was on the bench and Kiesling looked right at me. I figured he was finally going to use me. I reached down for my helmet and then he said, 'Marchibroda.' We had Ted Marchibroda as a quarterback and also Jimmy Finks and Vic Eaton. Ted had only been back with the Steelers from National Guard duty about two days and he was using him.
"We returned to Pittsburgh, had the weekend off and then I rode back to training camp in Olean, N.Y., with Finks and Lynn Chandnois. En route, we picked up Ted Marchibroda in Oil City [Pa.]. On Monday morning, assistant coach Nick Skorich, a real nice man, told me to bring my playbook and come see the head coach, Kiesling. I knew what that meant.
"He said he was going to have to let me go because he couldn't keep four quarterbacks. I said to him, 'Coach, I'm not upset you're getting rid of me, but you never even gave me [an] opportunity; that's what I feel is wrong.'
"I got $ 10 bus fare from Olean to Pittsburgh. I kept the money and hitchhiked home with another kid who got cut. He went off to the seminary and became a priest."
Unitas signed to play for a semipro team near Pittsburgh, the Bloomfield Rams, for $ 6 a game and took a job with a pile-driving crew. He didn't mind the work and needed the money because he had a wife, Dorothy, and a son, plus another child was expected soon.
He was making $ 11 an hour and working as the "monkey man" with the outfit, meaning that every morning at the job site he climbed 125 feet up the rig to grease the equipment. "We were driving piles, creating 50 tons of pressure every time we drove the corrugated pipe into the ground," he recalled.
That's what Unitas was doing when the Colts signed him for a non-guaranteed contract of $ 6,000 (no bonus) and, on the rebound, he went on to become the greatest quarterback the NFL has known.
Personally, he's blunt, unselfish, comes to the point in a hurry, is trusting and, yet, at the same time, suspicious, particularly of strangers -- the reason being that he has too often been betrayed by business partners and, at this time in his life, at age 64, believes in keeping his guard up to ward off con artists and pitch men.
Now he's an official with Matco Electronics Group in Timonium and is either in the office or on the road for sales presentations.
A storied career
With the Colts, he was the only player to be a part of three championship teams -- in 1958, 1959 and the Super Bowl in 1970. He set 22 records, was the league MVP three times, played in 10 Pro Bowls and was named to the all-time NFL team.
Playing against Unitas for the Green Bay Packers, tackle Henry Jordan was asked by a teammate, in short-yardage situations, what kind of play he might expect. "I don't know," mumbled a weary and wary Jordan, "because for five years I've been trying to figure him out and he always does what you don't expect."
Unitas believes being a defensive player in high school and college helped him formulate a comprehensive concept of the game.
"I hate to see specialization," he said. "I know playing defense made me a better quarterback because I had a chance to realize how defensive players think in certain situations and then as a play-caller could go at them accordingly. With the Colts, a smart player named Lloyd Colteryahn told me how I could work a lot of plays off a slant pass.
"Get that going and then do other things off it. I studied game films and looked for tendencies. I also kept checking myself so I didn't get into the same play-calling sequence. Gee, the slant pass was good for us. Throwing to Raymond Berry or Lenny Moore on the slant set up other things we could do. Can you imagine any coach showing Raymond or Lenny how to run a slant?
"I paid attention to players in the huddle and what they said they could do. If you listened to L. G. Dupre, he was open every play. But I did throw to him. Now with Jimmy Orr, another fine player, when he would say, 'Senor, the time is now and I can beat him on a z-out pattern.' When Orr said that, you knew he could get it done."
As for contemporary quarterbacks, Unitas regards Dan Marino highly and says that in 1983 he suggested to Ernie Accorsi, then general manager of the Colts, that he draft Marino. In the same respected category he includes John Elway, Joe Montana, Troy Aikman and Steve Young.
The most money Unitas ever earned from the Colts was $125,000 a year. Sold to the San Diego Chargers, they immediately doubled his contract to $250,000, but that's hardly comparable to the millions of dollars players make today.
Unitas has great memories, a reputation to match and a body that has almost as many replacement parts as you can find in a repair shop.
From his perspective, there is no reason for lamentation, but he has paid an enormous personal price for throwing touchdown passes. Yet he doesn't complain. That was never the Unitas way. He just took the best shot they had to give, got up, looked the defense in the eye and found a way to put the ball in the end zone.
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