Fifty years ago, an undersized defensive back named Andy Nelson climbed into a car alongside a 25-year-old, fresh-faced quarterback. Was it a Pontiac? A Chevrolet? Tricky thing about time: Just as easily as it can help shape a legacy, it can fade a memory.
Nelson and his friend drove together to Memorial Stadium, where they would catch a bus to the airport, where they would board a plane for New York, where they would make history just a couple of days later.
If there were only a way to get into his head. Just an inch below the thin crew cut. Just a hair below the thin crease that passed for a grin. Did the young quarterback have any idea? Did he talk about what was awaiting them?
The radio was probably playing, but they surely didn't discuss the game.
"He was a man of very few words, and I was, too," Nelson says. "We weren't much company. I was dull as a doorknob, and Johnny just didn't talk much before a game."
Something happened along the way. Was it a flat tire? Did the engine overheat? Time knows; Nelson doesn't. They pulled over. Whatever it was, they fixed it quickly. Destiny's speed bump didn't slow them down much.
Nothing was stopping them, in fact. The Baltimore Colts had a job to do. Professional football was about to change. And John Unitas was about to became Johnny U.
Ernie Accorsi was only 16 when the Colts met the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game. Decades later, he would serve as general manager for the Giants, and every year, on the anniversary of "The Greatest Game Ever Played," Accorsi would find himself driving up the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, passing Yankee Stadium as he headed to work. And every year, he would call his old friend.
"You know what today is?" Accorsi would ask.
"No," Unitas would respond. "I don't know."
"Come on, John. It's Dec. 28."
The most impressive part about Unitas' performance was left at Yankee Stadium on that bitter cold afternoon. But the most surprising part is how little it seemed to affect him.
Sure, his legacy changed. In the matter of just a few hours, with a record 40 million people watching on television, Unitas went from relative anonymity to nationwide sensation.
It was as if the entire sport - not to mention the title game - hinged on one man's shoulder.
"I ran into [Colts defensive lineman Art] Donovan in the press box a few years ago, and he said, 'There's that Sam Huff,' " the Giants' Hall of Fame linebacker says. "And I said, 'Artie, you give us John Unitas, and it would've been no contest.' And he paused for a second and said, 'Well, you might be right.' "
As time passed, the game seemed to affect everyone but the one man who played the defining role. He wasn't an unwilling participant. More likely, an unknowing one. To him, the 1958 championship game was another Sunday, another chance to put on a helmet and earn a paycheck playing catch with Raymond Berry.
"I remember someone asked him if he ever got up for a game," John Unitas Jr. says. "And he said, 'Yeah, I got up every morning.' That's what he did, how he approached his job."
Years later, his wife, Sandra, would have a trophy case installed in his office. John Ziemann, a friend, remembers visiting. As Ziemann oohed and aahed at the history collected, Unitas barely raised an eye.
"You want to see something really neat?" Unitas finally asked. "Check this out."
He showed his friend a picture of John Wayne. It wasn't a Colt appreciating a cowboy. It was a cowboy appreciating a cowboy.
A third meeting
For just the second year, Unitas entered the 1958 season as the Colts' starting quarterback.
Before they collided in the championship game, the Colts and Giants had faced each other twice that year. When they met in the preseason, New York's Frank Gifford remembers staring at the lanky kid with the crew cut and black high tops and scratching his head.
"We said, 'Who the hell is that?' " Gifford says.
By Dec. 28, 1958, they certainly knew.
There was reason, though, for the Colts to worry about how Unitas might perform in New York. Sure, he had thrown touchdown passes in 25 straight games (he would eventually extend his streak to 47, a mark that hasn't been topped since and probably never will be), but he had played recent games with three cracked ribs. In fact, he missed two November contests because of the injury and planned to take the field against the Giants wearing what news reports called either a harness or 9 pounds of padding.
Just two days before the game, The Sun reported Unitas was struggling.
"One disturbing thing at yesterday's drill was John Unitas' inaccuracy with his passes," the newspaper reported. "While the defense was studying and working against the New York plays, the Colt quarterback threw passes to his receivers at the other end of the field. ... [The receivers] each tried his favorite maneuver under the watchful eyes of offensive ends coach Bob Shaw.
"Each cut a smart pattern which would have him clear for a reception. But Unitas couldn't find the strike zone. Some of his tosses were caught, but it was the great effort on the part of the receivers, not his aim, that made the catches possible.
"Coach Weeb Ewbank was a little concerned, but Unitas told him, 'Don't worry, Coach. I will be all right.' "
And he was. In the days after the game, he would say to a reporter, "I was confident of winning from the start," but by no means was the game ever a foregone conclusion. Despite Unitas' best efforts.
The first quarter was ugly, but in the second, fullback Alan Ameche reached the end zone and Unitas found Berry for a 15-yard touchdown. The Colts led 14-3 at the half.
Unitas thought they could put the game away in the third quarter. On their opening possession, Unitas led them to the goal line. On fourth-and-goal from the 1, Unitas called for a "428." Ameche heard only "28," though. Ameche ran to the outside, and instead of flipping the ball to Jim Mutscheller, standing wide open in the end zone, he was tackled for a 4-yard loss. The Colts lost possession and momentum.
March into history
The Giants scored touchdowns on their next two possessions and suddenly held a 17-14 lead. But Unitas was about to lead his team into the history books.
Even today, they talk about Unitas' two-minute drill at the end of regulation and fail to distinguish it from what ESPN broadcasts on highlight shows every Sunday night.
Unitas didn't invent the two-minute drill as much as he perfected it, providing a model for a hurry-up offense that still makes modern-day offensive coordinators weep. When Unitas led the Colts downfield, he didn't have the luxury of stopping the clock. Spike the ball? Penalty. Throw it out of bounds? Penalty. If the referees didn't think the quarterback made a good-faith effort to connect with a receiver, the team was slapped with an intentional-grounding flag. Plus, unlike most modern-day quarterbacks, Unitas called his own plays the entire way downfield.
The Colts had only one timeout, but it didn't matter. They knew they had Unitas. That was enough.
"The way we felt about our offense was always that something great would happen. John had so much confidence," defensive end Gino Marchetti says.
In the huddle, Unitas spoke, and his words would echo for years.
"John is not one to make speeches," Ameche once said, "but he said, 'We've got 80-some yards to go and two minutes left to do it in. Now we find out what stuff we're made out of.' "
There have been many stabs at poetry to describe what happened next, to describe how Unitas marched his Colts downfield. Some of the best sportswriters have likened the display to watching Rembrandt or van Gogh wave a brush.
In truth, Unitas was a house painter, his overalls splotched, not quite sure what the clamor was all about. He diligently painted that day, unaware of the masterpiece trailing off his brush.
Here's how he described it days after the game: "There wasn't time for getting upset or worrying about things. You don't worry about anyone hitting you. You keep your eyes on the boys up front and depend on a kind of sixth sense to tell you if somebody's coming for you."
A game that had started so sloppily suddenly had grabbed every viewer by the neck. Unitas didn't let fans turn away, any more than he let the Giants have a second to catch their breath.
Unitas to Berry for 25. Unitas to Berry for 15. Unitas to Berry for 22.
"He was the coolest man on the field," says Nelson, who was watching from the sideline. "Folks were running around like crazy. For Johnny, it was just another two minutes."
Before you knew it, the field-goal unit was on the field, and Unitas and Berry were on the sideline. Steve Myhra nailed the 20-yarder to tie the score at 17.
While players and coaches were exchanging blank looks, trying to figure out what a tie score meant, the stage couldn't have been set better for Unitas. After all, this was a man who firmly believed he had never lost a game; he had simply run out of clock a few times.
But not this time, courtesy of an extra period.
As the world was introduced to overtime football, symbolically, an important thing was taking place at the 50-yard line. Marchetti was stuck on the sideline, his ankle crushed by his own teammate, "Big Daddy" Lipscomb, in the fourth quarter, so Unitas walked alone from the sideline to midfield for the coin toss. The nation's attention had focused on him, and it wouldn't turn away for decades.
Referee Ron Gibbs, according to newspaper reports at the time, said, "Gentlemen, I hope you are aware that you are about to participate in the first overtime game in the history of professional football."
Unitas was emotionless, his hands resting on his hips, as Gibbs flipped a coin into the air. "Tails," Unitas said. It was heads. That would be Unitas' last bad decision of the day.
The Giants ran three plays and then punted. The Colts took over at their own 20. Just as he had done at the end of regulation, Unitas moved his team downfield.
On third-and-14, Unitas hit Berry for a 21-yard gain, putting the Colts in New York territory. The Giants were tiring, and on the next play, Huff cheated a bit, almost daring Unitas to throw to Berry once more.
Instead, Unitas called for a trap, and Ameche scampered up the middle for 23.
"I think one of his philosophies was if you have any idea what the defense is going to do, do the opposite," Berry says.
Unitas connected with Berry a final time, putting the Colts within sniffing distance of the goal line. On second-and-goal from the 7, everyone in the stadium was anticipating the run. So Unitas passed. He hit Mutscheller with a lob pass. Mutscheller made it to the 1 but slipped on the icy ground and tumbled out of bounds. For years, Unitas would tease him: "Jim, I tried to make you a hero."
The Sun reported the next day, "Press box observers roared in disapproval at the audacity of such tactics, pointing out an interception would have ruined a sure field goal." A New York reporter named Dave Anderson would later ask Unitas about the gutsy pass near the goal line. "When you know what you're doing, you don't get intercepted," Unitas said.
On the next play, the Giants were in their goal-line defense, turning holes into thin cracks. But as Unitas handed off to Ameche, Mutscheller and Lenny Moore laid key blocks, opening a path of green-brown carpet that led Ameche into the end zone. Colts 23, Giants 17.
The final play provided an iconic still image of Ameche scoring, but film of the game shows even more compelling footage of the man who handed him the ball. It was quintessential Unitas. As Ameche broke the plane of the goal line and his teammates began to throw their hands into the air, Unitas can be seen in the background, a place where he didn't mind hanging out. There was no clapping and no jumping. He turned his back on the celebration and calmly walked off the field, his shoulders pulled downward, his gait slightly belabored and his attention already on to something else. His workday had ended.
There was no way for Unitas to know it at the time, but everything was suddenly different. At least it was for football, for the Colts, for the city of Baltimore.
But was it for him?
Unitas revealed almost immediately how long he intended to celebrate his finest day. He was offered $500 to stay the night in New York and appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. He declined. The offer was raised to $750. He declined again. He just wanted to go home with his teammates, he explained, and see his family.
Ameche made the appearance instead, but Unitas did return to New York a week later. As the game's Most Valuable Player - he was 26-for-40 for 349 yards and a touchdown - he was awarded a Corvette by Sport magazine. He accepted it graciously and, upon returning home, promptly sold it and bought a station wagon.
"My father was not much for all those things; it was more about him and the camaraderie with his teammates," Unitas Jr says. "He loved football. He loved practices. He was out there because he loved the game. He didn't care about the awards, the individual accomplishments. He knew it was a team game."
Unitas Jr. was just 2 at the time. He says his mother stayed in Baltimore that day, watching him and his sister. He doesn't remember his dad returning home, but in his head, that night was probably like so many others: Dad came home late, tired and sore but instantly forgot he had even played a football game when his children ran and met him at the front door.
"He never acted like it was the high point in his life or anything like that," said Tom Callahan, author of the 2006 biography Johnny U. "He had an exceptional memory, but that doesn't mean he was especially sentimental."
Others can attest to that. John Wayne didn't have time to cry, either.
Accorsi remembers a banquet the night before Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. The speaker pointed to the new inductees and told the crowd, "Take one look at them, because tomorrow they'll be crying like babies." Afterward, a straight-faced Unitas told Accorsi, "I don't know who the hell that guy was talking about me, but it's not going to be me."
"And the next day," Accorsi says, "it wasn't him. No tears, no crack of a voice. That's John. I kept a picture of him in my office with the Giants, you know. Kept it in the back, though, so it wasn't too prominent when the owners came in. And I looked at it whenever things were tough and asked myself, 'How would he handle this?' It was just a head shot, and these steel gray eyes would stare back at me and say, 'Toughen up, Accorsi.' "
As the years passed, Baltimore never stopped talking about the 1958 game. Even when the team was stolen away in the dead of night, the party from that first title never really stopped.
If prompted, for years until his death in 2002, Unitas could recall every play from those final drives. He wouldn't bring it up, though. You had to ask.
"I'm sure, in his heart, he cherished it," says Richard Sammis, a Baltimore businessman and a close friend for 25 years. "It was something that was just a part of his life as a football player. But it wasn't who he was."
Tricky thing about time: Just as easily as it can fade a memory, it can help shape a legacy. History shows that 30,000 people greeted the Colts at the airport that night 50 years ago. They climbed atop the bus and partied as never before. When the fans finally cleared and the television cameras left, the bus returned to Memorial Stadium, where the players dispersed.
Johnny U and Andy Nelson drove together. Was it a Pontiac? Maybe a Chevrolet. Doesn't matter.
They drove in near silence. The radio was probably playing.
Unitas dropped off Nelson. No congrats. No pats on the back.
"I'll see you tomorrow," Unitas said.
No. Name Pos.
14 George Shaw QB
17 Ray Brown S-P
19 John Unitas QB
20 Milt Davis DB
21 Art DeCarlo OE
23 Carl Taseff DB
24 Lenny Moore RB
25 Jack Call RB
26 Leonard Lyles RB
31 Billy Pricer FB
35 Alan Ameche FB
36 Bill Pellington LB
41 Jackie Simpson DB
44 Bert Rechichar DB-K
45 L.G. Dupre RB
47 John Sample DB
50 Buzz Nutter C
52 *Dick Szymanski C-LB
55 Leo Sanford LB
60 George Preas OT
63 Art Spinney OG
64 Fuzzy Thurston OG
65 Steve Myhra LB-K
66 Don Shinnick LB
68 Alex Sandusky OG
70 Art Donovan DT
76 Gene Lipscomb DT
77 Jim Parker OT
78 Ray Krouse DT
79 Sherman Plunkett OT
80 Andy Nelson S
81 Ordell Braase DE
82 Raymond Berry OE
83 Don Joyce DE
84 Jim Mutscheller OE
89 Gino Marchetti DE
No. Name Pos.
11 Don Heinrich QB
13 Don Maynard RB
16 Frank Gifford RB
17 Jack Kemp QB
20 Jim Patton S
21 Carl Karilivacz DB
22 Billy Lott DB
24 Phil King RB
29 Alex Webster RB
30 Bill Svoboda LB
33 Mel Triplett FB
34 Don Chandler RB-P
41 Linden Crow S
42 Charley Conerly QB
44 Kyle Rote OE
45 Emlen Tunnell DB
48 Ed Hughes DB
55 Ray Wietecha C
60 Buzz Guy OT
62 Bob Mischak OG
66 Jack Stroud OT
68 Al Barry OG
70 Sam Huff LB
71 M.L. Brackett DT
72 Frank Youso OT
75 Jim Katcavage DE
76 Roosevelt Grier DT
77 Dick Modzelewski DT
79 Roosevelt Brown OT
80 Ken MacAfee OE
81 Andy Robustelli DE
84 Harland Svare LB
85 Bob Schnelker OE
88 Pat Summerall K
89 Cliff Livingston LB