John Unitas' importance in pro football history can't be emphasized enough. He was not only one of the game's all-time greatest quarterbacks, but also a central figure in the NFL's rise from relative obscurity to the nation's No. 1 sports obsession.
When Unitas broke in with the Colts in 1956, pro football still lagged behind baseball, boxing and horse racing in the hearts and minds of many sports fans. But a new medium - television - and a small cadre of indelible characters would soon send the NFL hurtling toward the top.
In the corridors of power, there was Pete Rozelle, the boy wonder commissioner who recognized TV's awesome potential.
On the sidelines, there was Vince Lombardi, the jut-jawed coach who molded a dynasty in Green Bay.
And in uniform, there was Unitas, the Baltimore quarterback who made the impossible seem routine.
"He was, in a way, the face of the league as it grew," said Tex Schramm, who worked for the Los Angeles Rams and CBS television in the '50s and was later one of the architects of the Dallas Cowboys' dynasty. "There were a few guys who people looked at and said, 'There's pro football. There's one of the guys who make this game so great.' Johnny Unitas was one of them."
His timing was as perfect as his sideline tosses to his favorite Colts receiver, Raymond Berry. Pro football was just evolving when he arrived, with offenses becoming more sophisticated and exciting as they moved away from the running game and old-fashioned sleight-of-hand trickery and toward the passing game.
"There were guys like Otto Graham and Sammy Baugh who were great passers, but Unitas was really the first, great, unbelievable passing quarterback," Schramm said. "We'd never had anything like that before in the league. His passing was remarkable. He could hit anything. And he did it late in close games. There was just so much drama with Unitas. He was a player that people loved to watch."
People in Baltimore were the ones who loved to watch him the most, of course. The city's major-league papers had just been stamped a few years earlier, with the Colts arriving in 1953 and the Orioles a year later.
"We'd never had anything - anything! - and then this guy just appeared out of nowhere," said sportswriter Frank Deford, who was a Baltimore teenager when Unitas came along. "He was like someone who had come to us from another planet. No one had ever heard of him. We didn't even know how to pronounce his name. We called him 'Uni-tass' at first. But then he was almost immediately this God-like figure, throwing passes and pulling out games. He could do no wrong. He was Robin Hood. It was amazing, wonderful. And it climaxed that day in New York."
The Colts' defeat of the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game at Yankee Stadium was a watershed moment for the NFL, the day the sport arrived at the forefront of the nation's sports awareness. Millions across the country were watching on TV as the Colts rallied to an overtime victory in a taut drama that underlined the pro game's best aspects. Unitas was the star of the show, coolly rescuing the Colts with his passing and courage.
"Unitas had something that you can't exactly put into words - a form of quiet leadership that you don't see much of anymore, and it was never more evident than that day," Schramm said. "As the audience for pro football grew with that game and others that followed, Unitas represented something to the public."
His timing, again, was perfect. He was the game's best quarterback at the precise moment when TV's power and pro football's rising popularity began to create the monster that would one day dwarf all other sports.
It was an epic time for myth-making in America, with the space program taking off and the country turning to a new generation of heroes such as astronauts and football players, who were engaged in "new" endeavors seemingly as fantastic as they were dangerous. Unitas became a fixture on that dramatic landscape.
The irony, of course, was that he was as old-fashioned as they came, a classic American underdog, hunch-shouldered, buzz-cut, sparing with words; willing to stay in the pocket and take a fearful beating as long as it meant he'd win. Reared in the blue-collar hills of Western Pennsylvania, he had been ignored and disdained before coming to the Colts as a graduate of a semi-pro league.
"I saw him three or four years ago, and he was all beat up," Deford said. "He paid for all those years of staying in the pocket. But, oh, was he gutsy. On top of everything else, his great skill, you will never find a gutsier athlete."
He lived long enough to see his sport become a multi-billion dollar industry, an ultra-modern mega-game.
"His time was just a little bit before the wave [of popularity] really broke for the NFL," Deford said. "There was more [adulation] for, say, Joe Montana, who was a generation later. But people in the East knew about Unitas. People in New York certainly did.
There's a great appreciation now for how good he was. He was right on the cusp of it all as he played. It started with him, it really did."