JOHN UNITAS was slow but cool, gritty yet unpredictable. He played with an unsentimental grace. One day he was a semi-pro on Western Pennsylvania's oil-soggy fields, and seemingly the next he was at Memorial Stadium, taking the Colts and football and the idea of the quarterback to new and unimagined places.
He didn't invent the forward pass, and he didn't invent the NFL, but neither was the same after he had done with them. Johnny Unitas, in the blue and white of Baltimore, did invent the quarterback-as-star. An ordinary guy among men, he came to pro football knowing what real life was about. That doesn't happen anymore.
A golden arm like his doesn't happen anymore, either.
He was 25 when he led the Colts into the Polo Grounds in New York for the 1958 championship game against the Giants. So much has been made of that game -- and maybe it wasn't really the greatest game ever played -- but it took place at a prosperous moment when the country was ready for something more physical and martial than baseball, when a new magazine called Sports Illustrated was looking to make a name for itself, and when New York, the arena, was at a pinnacle of cultural power. Johnny U took his team to a 23-17 win in overtime. All the pieces came together, and the NFL as we know it stepped out onto the nation's center stage that day. What anyone remembered afterward was the steely aplomb of the quarterback from Baltimore.
If there's anything unfortunate about that game, it's that it might have obscured just how good he always was. For instance: He threw touchdown passes in 47 straight games. No one else has ever come close.
For all his brilliance, Baltimore fans could always relate to him, in a way that's now impossible. He helped turn football into a spectacle, but John Unitas, who died yesterday at the age of 69, hailed from an earlier, more human era of the game. We mourn the Colts, we mourn Memorial Stadium, and now we mourn the finest football player who ever stepped out onto its field.