My grandfather loved the Baltimore Colts, so I loved the Baltimore Colts. If Grandpa had been a fan of the Sneedville Snipes, I would have been there with him, because he was my grandfather. But as it turns out, the man knew his football. In his house, the Colts were like American royalty, and Johnny Unitas, the game’s most gifted quarterback, was King.
When we were both younger, he took me to the games. He’d buy me one of the glossy programs with black and white photos of the players rushing, blocking, menacing in a three-point stance, leaping for a reception. Somewhere over the years, I lost them all. As he grew older and his health declined, we would watch Colt football together on the black and white TV in the overheated warmth of his Baltimore home. He taught me loyalty; we loved the Colts whether they were up or down, because they were ours.
I can still see Unitas taking a snap on a gloomy, winter day, back-pedaling away from the center in those black, high-topped shoes, the ball cradled securely in his massive hands, unperturbed by the angry swarm of onrushing defenders trying to claw their way through his protection. As he watched the play unfold before him, Unitas would pump-fake once, twice, then throw a spiraling bullet downfield at the last possible moment, right into the ready hands of Colt receivers Raymond Berry or Lenny Moore.
He was like a great conductor leading a symphony, or a chess master who turns every attack by his opponent into an advantage. He exuded confidence — not arrogance, never cockiness, just the certainty that comes from having mastered the skills and details through exhaustive preparation. His team trusted him unquestioningly, and he led them from victory to victory.
Johnny Unitas was my hero.
When Unitas started playing for the University of Louisville, he was a bit of a runt. Notre Dame turned him down — they were afraid he’d be killed. Skinny, even by quarterback standards, he was deceptively tough. His father had owned a coal delivery business in Pittsburgh where young John worked after school shoveling anthracite by the tons before hitting the books after dark. The physical work made him strong, but more importantly, it taught him what can be accomplished with sweat and persistence.
He began his pro career with the Pittsburgh Steelers, but they cut him after a year when the coach failed to see his potential. It was a huge mistake for the Steelers, but as with every other setback in his career, Unitas turned it into an opportunity.
The Baltimore Colts were building a new team in 1956 and signed Unitas along with an unlikely crew of other young rejects, all of whom were surprisingly talented. By the end of 1957, having ended the season with 7 wins and 5 losses, it suddenly dawned on them all that with a little more work, they might actually be able to take the championship the following year.
That team was probably as good as any we ever had. There were so many close games that turned around on just one play. Against Detroit, I can still see Lenny dropping the ball and Yale Lary falling on it. Then everything came down to a single pass in San Francisco, all or nothing. I’ll tell you, we couldn’t wait for nineteen fifty-eight. That was our rallying call to each other. We didn’t just have an idea of what was coming. We knew it in our hearts. — Gino Marchetti as quoted in Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas by Tom Callahan
Professional football in the 50’s was nothing like it is today. The players all worked “real” jobs outside of their football careers to make ends meet. In 1958, Unitas was one of the top-paid players in Baltimore, earning $17,550 a year. Most of the players made half that.
Which meant that they lived in the same neighborhoods as their fans, drank beer at the same bars, worshiped in the same churches and worked side by side at the same construction sites, in the same factories. The people of Baltimore got used to seeing their Colts on those grimy streets, and the Colts never seemed to tire of signing autographs or speculating about next week’s game.
The Colts were us. For all of his awesome talent, Unitas was just an ordinary guy and Baltimore was his home. They didn’t play for the money or the notoriety. They played because they loved football. But in 1958, they also played to leave a mark on history. And they did.
The 1958 World Championship game (this was before there was a “Superbowl”) between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts has often been called the greatest football game ever played. The Colts were three-point favorites, but the teams were evenly matched and the struggle was titanic.
Although the Colts led 14-3 at the half, the Giants came back hard, denying the Colts scoring opportunities and taking the lead 17-14 in the 4th quarter on a touchdown by Frank Gifford. The Colts and Giants each frustrated the other’s scoring drives in the final minutes of the game. Unwilling to quit and with less than a minute left in the game, Unitas moved the Colts deep into Giants’ territory to within field-goal range. With seven seconds on the clock, Steve Myhra kicked a 20-yard field goal to tie the game.
In overtime, the Colts shut down the Giants’ first series, took the punt at the 20 and began an unyielding drive down field. They passed, they ran, they faked, they improvised. And with six minutes left, they scored to win the Championship.
The thing about Unitas was, he played for the team. In the huddle, he always asked for ideas from the other players. He always wanted to know who needed a little extra help from the others. On field and off, those old Colts talk about being a family. They were there for each other, and in the long years after the glory of those days had faded, they continued to be there for each other as old age and the assaults of life took its toll.
As much as they loved the game, they came to love each other even more.
We loved the Colts, too. They made us proud. The city of Baltimore, with its grinding poverty, decaying shipyards and hardscrabble streets had been lifted above it all for a time by a golden team led by a smiling young man with a golden arm — Johnny U.
He was my hero.