The mix that made him great

Sun Staff

They came to watch the cold war, to be fought at Memorial Stadium on an icy Sunday in late November 1958. On the field, Popsicle-hard at 2 o'clock, the high-flying Colts readied to play San Francisco, a team Baltimore had rarely beaten.

At game time, the mercury read 22 degrees and the crowd numbered 57,557, warmed by blankets, Boh beer and the bravado of a slope-shouldered young quarterback whose surname they had already sheared to a single vowel.

Johnny U will whup the 49ers. Didja see him against the Rams last week? Threw a TD pass to Lenny Moore on the first play. Bruised ribs? Ha! Unitas is tough. My kid's gettin' a crew cut, too, soon as this cold snap ends.

At 25, John Unitas had the Colts (8-1) on the rise, one step shy of a Western Conference crown. Also at stake was his streak of having passed for at least one touchdown in 22 consecutive games, one short of the NFL record set in 1942 by Green Bay's Cecil Isbell. But a championship ring was all that mattered, Unitas said. "Statistics are for losers," he told reporters before the game.

Who would have thought, on that cold November day, that the man who spoke those words would go on to set 22 NFL records? Incongruous as it sounds, it was Unitas' task-at-hand outlook that shaped a career in which he passed for more than 40,000 yards and 290 touchdowns. Also crucial were his savvy sense of leadership, indefatigable drive and the poise to harness his gifted right arm.

'You keep on coming'

When the Colts took the field against San Francisco, none of these attributes was apparent. Unitas stumbled, fumbled and played like he was worth about 80 cents — the cost of the telephone call that had earned him a tryout two years before. By midgame, he'd completed five of 17 passes for a paltry 28 yards.

"John couldn't have hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle," receiver Raymond Berry recalls. One pass was picked off by linebacker Matt Hazeltine, who raced 13 yards for a 49ers touchdown. Bereft of direction, the Colts' game fell apart. "No phase of rotten football was overlooked," the Baltimore News-Post wrote of the first half.

Trailing 27-7, the home team slunk off amid a rare chorus of boos. "That [hooting] was a big deal," offensive guard Alex Sandusky says. "We felt like little kids being sent to stand in the corner."

It was a grim crowd that greeted the Colts' 125-piece marching band at halftime. "Sometimes we'd play a song called 'Oh! Johnny,' " says trombonist Bill Miller, now retired, of Columbia. He doesn't recollect the band playing Unitas' number that day, "though we still thought he'd somehow pull the game out."

As they filed into the dressing room, Coach Weeb Ewbank eyed his troops. "I've seen sicker cows than this get well," he said. Then Ewbank strode to the chalkboard and drew a giant "4" — the number of touchdowns needed to win. End of speech.

What of Unitas? He sat quietly, rejecting the what-ifs while mulling over ways to save the day. "His reaction to adversity was pretty predictable," Berry said. "You keep on coming."

That, he did. The Colts stormed back with two long scoring drives, fullback Alan "The Horse" Ameche plowing over the goal line for both TDs. Mixing plays, threading passes, Unitas chipped away at San Francisco's lead, to the chagrin of Y.A. Tittle, the 49ers' star quarterback who watched from the sidelines.

"He was such a big believer," Tittle says of Unitas. "He never felt he was going to lose, and that confidence trickled down to his teammates."

'John, just get the first down'

And up to his coach. Once, on fourth down, Ewbank called his quarterback aside to talk tactics. Standing on the sideline, shivering, defensive end Gino Marchetti heard their words.

"Weeb said, 'Let's do this — no, let's do that.' They were indecisive instructions, and John stood there, without emotion, just staring at him," Marchetti says. "Finally, Weeb threw up his hands and said, 'John, just get the first down.' "

Unitas fired a short pass to Berry to keep the drive alive. Minutes later, he sensed an opening and ordered an end run. Lenny Moore raced 73 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Delirious, some fans spilled onto the field, narrowly missing Dixie, the team mascot, a blue-eyed Welsh pony who galloped a victory lap around the stadium after every Baltimore score.

"Unitas had them in the end zone so often that day, the horse's tongue was hanging out," says R.C. Owens, a San Francisco receiver.

Says Sandusky, recalling the go-ahead touchdown: "Lenny went by me so fast, I didn't get to throw a block." Sandusky still marvels at Unitas' call: "John was like a pool hustler, always thinking three plays ahead."

Amazing turnaround

With two minutes remaining, Unitas struck again — a 7-yard pass to Berry, capping a 35-27 victory and tying Isbell's mark.

There was no question who'd sparked the turnaround. Unitas completed 12 of 16 passes for 168 yards "while acting as cool as if he were playing in a pickup game," recalls Andy Nelson, defensive back.

The fans went nuts, hurling scarves and hats, engulfing the home team and hoisting players aloft. "Unbelievable noise, unbelievable crush," says Berry. "It's a miracle no one was killed."

Unitas, toweling off at his locker, was as blase about the victory as about his early woes. He said he was "not really worried. There had been some mistakes made that I guess you could say worried me. I just wanted to ... straighten them out.

He smiled. "I guess we did."

Less than a month after that Nov. 30 game, the Colts won the NFL championship, defeating the New York Giants in a game that brought Unitas the kind of public acclaim he was already getting from fellow players. A nationwide TV audience ooohed as he hurled smart bombs and marched his team downfield to win in overtime, 23-17.

It was such Patton-esque command and shrewd play-calling that would distinguish Unitas throughout his 18-year career. In that era, NFL quarterbacks called their own games, in contrast to today's headset-directed offenses. But even then, Unitas stood out; he drew on his acumen to think on his feet.

And his right arm? He could throw long at a time when few quarterbacks were expected — or allowed — to do so. Twenty-seven times, Unitas passed for 300 or more yards in a single game.

Streak for the ages

All of this helped him set the one record that may never be equaled: 47 consecutive regular-season games in which Unitas threw at least one touchdown pass. During that five-year span (1956-60), he passed for more than 1¨ miles, staked Baltimore to two NFL titles and won the reputation that in 1999 earned him Pro Football Hall of Fame plaudits as the game's all-time top quarterback.

The streak concluded with a flourish. In Game 43, Unitas completed five passes — four of them for touchdowns —in the first half. The following week, he threw for four more scores, three of them in the first 20 minutes. One week after that, pummeled and bloodied by the Chicago Bears, Unitas threw for the winning score with 17 seconds remaining. Then, in an uncharacteristic burst of emotion, he leaped into the air, arms over his head.

Two years ago, talking about the streak, Unitas appeared modest. "I never paid much attention to it, not like the newspaper people did," he said in an interview. "My whole thing was to just win games, using everything at my disposal. It didn't matter if we did it by running or throwing, as long as our concentration was on winning. Everyone was on the same page. There were no jealousies among anyone. The team ran the plays I called and never questioned them."

Reflecting on changes in the position that his play helped define, Unitas was critical. "Coaches today have taken the game away from the quarterback. They don't allow him to use his head, and that's a mistake. They don't allow him to think."

During his years at quarterback, Unitas was honored four times as the league's best player, either as Most Valuable Player or player of the year (1957, 1964, 1967 and 1959).

He accomplished so much because of the way he could throw, and the way he could think, opponents say.

Playing mind games

"Only John Unitas could have done, with the Colts, what John Unitas did," says Dave Robinson, who tangled with him regularly in the 1960s as a linebacker for archrival Green Bay. Few clubs played long ball as a matter of course, like Baltimore. "John could drop one in on you from 50 yards on the fly," says Robinson.

But it was Unitas' furtive mind-set and chess-like gambits that drove teams to distraction, including the two-time Super Bowl champion Packers. "Coach [Vince] Lombardi knew we had to play cat-and-mouse with Unitas," says Robinson. "If John called something odd in the first three or four plays, a formation that wasn't on our game films, look out — he was setting us up. He'd remember how every [defender] reacted, and file it away. Later, when he needed it on third-and-eight, he'd come back to that play and burn you."

As a result, says Robinson, any anomaly in the Colts' game plan would freak out the enemy: "We'd ask ourselves, 'Where was I weak on that play? How did I react? How did he think I'd react? Am I going to get burned next time?' " The fact that Unitas called his own plays heightened the challenge, says Robinson: "It was mano-a-mano with him."

In 1967, Robinson and the Packers played at Memorial Stadium in midseason. Colts hopes were high; Unitas had his team undefeated (5-0-2), despite an anemic running game. But the 60,238 in attendance, including Robert F. Kennedy Jr., knew the outcome was uncertain. If anyone could knock off the leaders, it was the defending Super Bowl champs. Green Bay was 5-1-1 and had defeated the Colts in their previous five outings.

For nearly 55 minutes, the Packers held Unitas at bay, allowing 20 yards passing. The Colts poked, prodded, punted. They trailed 10-0 when Unitas tried again to crack a Green Bay wall that featured five future Pro Football Hall of Famers ( Willie Davis, Ray Nitschke, Henry Jordan, Herb Adderley and Willie Wood).

Shrugging off the futility of the first 3¨ quarters, Unitas huddled up at the Colts' 38. Quickly, deftly, he drove his team 62 yards, curling a 10-yard touchdown pass to Alex Hawkins with 2:19 to play. People who'd headed for the exits halted, stood on the ramps, craned their necks to watch. The Colts missed the extra-point try but recovered an onside kick 34 yards from the goal line. Green Bay led 10-6.

'The guy was unshakable'

As he trotted onto the field, surrounded by blaring horns and boisterous fans, Packers defensive end Willie Davis braced for the worst. "I'd seen it before," he says. "With two minutes to go, an eerie late-afternoon darkness would set in at that stadium, the horse would start prancing, the crowd would sense something and Unitas would start performing.

"It was almost a psychological thing. We had this fear that no matter what had happened in the first three quarters, that guy would get it done."

Green Bay's defense held ... for three downs. On fourth-and-six at the 30, Davis and his mates roared in on Unitas, who ducked the rush and took off running to his left in that odd, crab-like gait.

The Packers were ready. Awaiting Unitas near the sideline, and standing just inside the first-down marker, was linebacker Lee Roy Caffey. They met head-on, Unitas straining toward the yardstick, Caffey determined to deny him. Another tackler slammed into the quarterback from behind, driving him forward for the first down. He made it by inches.

Unitas rose slowly but stoically, much to Green Bay's dismay. "He just looked at us, rolled his eyes a little and walked away," says Davis. "That look said, 'I have a plan, and you interrupted it for a moment, but I've still got the plan.'

"That look scared you. The guy was unshakable."

A perfect pass

Seconds later, Unitas threw a 23-yard scoring pass to Willie Richardson, who held the ball briefly, then hurled it into the stands. On Nov. 5, 1967, Unitas had thrown two touchdown passes within 51 seconds to defeat Lombardi's Packers, 13-10.

The Colts finished the season 11-1-2 but failed to make the playoffs, losing the division to the Rams on a tiebreaker. Green Bay regrouped and won the Super Bowl (defeating Oakland). On the strength of his play, Unitas won that season's MVP award— his third.

At 34, he still wielded an arm that could carry the Colts' offense. What set him apart? Unitas' twofold talent — his mind and his matter, says Adderley, Green Bay's stellar cornerback. To this day, Adderley is baffled as to how Unitas completed the game-winning pass to Richardson in 1967.

"I was all over Willie — no, I was more than on him," says Adderley, the defender. "I'd overplayed him so well, I was a step ahead of [Richardson] when Unitas set to throw that pass. It was like I was the receiver and Willie the defensive back."

If Unitas had thrown to the spot where everyone expected Richardson to be, Adderley would have intercepted. "When that ball left John's hand, it had my name on it," Adderley says. What he didn't know at the time was that Unitas had glimpsed them maneuvering downfield and improvised.

"Somehow, John changed the trajectory of the ball as it left his hand," says Adderley. "He threw it behind me, allowing Willie to make the catch."

That play, he says, was "the greatest read-and-throw I've ever seen.

"That's why John Unitas was the best."

Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad