Johnny Unitas

From New World Encyclopedia

Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas.jpg
Date of birth May 7, 1933
Place of birth Flag of United States Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Date of death September 11 2002 (aged 69)
Place of death Baldwin, Maryland
Position(s) Quarterback
College Louisville
NFL Draft 1955 / Round 9 / Pick 102
Career highlights
Pro Bowls 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961,
1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967
Awards 1959 UPI MVP
1959 Bert Bell Award
1959 Pro Bowl MVP
1960 Pro Bowl MVP
1963 Pro Bowl MVP
1964 UPI MVP
1964 Bert Bell Award
1967 UPI MVP
1967 Bert Bell Award
1970 Walter Payton Award
Honors NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time

NFL 1960s All-Decade Team
Retired #s Baltimore Colts #19
Louisville Cardinals #16
Records NFL Consecutive Games
with a Touchdown Pass (47)
Baltimore Colts
Career Passing Yards (39,768),
Baltimore Colts
Career Passing TDs (287)
Baltimore Colts
San Diego Chargers
Pro Football Hall of Fame, 1979

John Constantine "Johnny" Unitas (May 7, 1933 – September 11, 2002) was a professional American football player in the 1950s-70s, mostly with the Baltimore Colts. Widely regarded as the greatest professional quarterback of all time, he threw touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games, considered by many to be an "unbreakable" record.

After playing for the University of Louisville, Unitas was signed in 1955 by the National Football League's Pittsburgh Steelers, but was released before the season started. Later, he played semi-professional football before signing with the Baltimore Colts in 1956. By his retirement in 1974 (playing the last season with the San Diego Chargers), he held career records for attempted passes, completions, yards gained passing, and touchdown passes, among other achievements.

Although most of his marks were later eclipsed, he played in an era when the rules made passing more difficult. Noted for his ability to call plays from the line of scrimmage, Unitas was the Associated Press Player of the Decade (1960s); the NFL's most valuable player in 1959, 1964, and 1967; and was inducted into the Professional Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Early life

Unitas was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933. His father died when he was five years old, and he was raised by his Lithuanian immigrant mother who worked two jobs to support the family. His unusual surname was a result of a phonetic transliteration of a common Lithuanian last name Jonaitis.

Attending St Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played halfback and quarterback. After high school, he looked for an opportunity to play college football. He was passed over by Notre Dame and Indiana. The Pitt then offered a scholarship, but Unitas failed the entrance exam. The University of Louisville finally came through with a scholarship, and Unitas left home for Kentucky. He played quarterback for Louisville during his college career.

College career

In his four-year career at Louisville, Unitas completed 245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns. It is recorded that the six-foot, one-inch Unitas weighed only 145 pounds on his first day of practice at the University of Louisville.

Unitas’ first start was in the fifth game of the 1951 season against St. Bonaventure. He completed 11 consecutive passes and three touchdowns to give the Cardinals a 21-19 lead. Though Louisville lost the game 22-21 on a disputed field goal, it had found a talented quarterback. As a freshman, Unitas completed 46 of 99 passes for 602 yards and nine touchdowns.

In 1952, the team switched to one-platoon football. Unitas played safety and linebacker on defense, quarterback on offense, and kick/punt returner on special teams. Unitas completed 106 of 198 passes for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns in his sophomore year.

The team won their first game in 1953, against Murray State, and lost the rest for a record of 1-7. Yet Unitas still excelled. One of the most memorable games of the season came in a 59-6 loss against Tennessee. Unitas completed nine of 19 passes for 73 yards, rushed nine times for 52 yards, returned six kickoffs for 85 yards, one punt for three yards, and had and an incredible 86 percent of the team's tackles. In his junior year, Unitas completed 49 of 95 passes for 470 yards and three touchdowns.

Unitas was elected captain for the 1954 season, but due to an early injury did not see much playing time. His first start of the season was the third game against Florida State. Of the 34-man team, 21 were freshmen. The 1954 Louisville Cardinals went 3-6, with the last win at home against Morehead State. Unitas was slowed by so many injuries his senior year that he did not lead the team in passing yards. He threw for 527 yards, second to Jim Houser’s 560.

Professional career

After college, Unitas was drafted in the nineteenth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL, but was released before the season began. By then he was married with a child and did construction work in Pittsburgh to support his family. On the weekends, he played on a local semipro team called the Bloomfield Rams for six dollars a game.

In 1956, Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts of the NFL under legendary coach Weeb Ewbank, who appreciated Unitas' potential. The Colts won the NFL championship under Unitas' leadership in 1958 by defeating the New York Giants 23-17 in sudden death overtime. It was the first overtime game in NFL history, and is often referred to as the "greatest game ever played." The game, nationally televised by NBC, has been credited for sparking the rise in popularity of professional football during the 1960s. Unitas then led the Colts to a repeat championship in 1959, beating the Giants again 31-16 in the title game.

Later in his career, although he was injured through most of the 1968 season, Unitas stayed on the bench to play in Super Bowl III, the famous game wherein Joe Namath guaranteed a New York Jets win. Sidelined virtually all season with a lame elbow, Unitas helped put together the Colts' only score, a touchdown late in the game. In 1970, Unitas led the Colts to Super Bowl V. He was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, after throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass (setting a Super Bowl record) that helped lift the team to victory. In 1971, Unitas brought the Colts to the AFC Championship game and lost to Miami 21-0.

Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973 and retired from football in 1974. He finished his 17 NFL seasons with 2,830 completions in 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, with 253 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Unitas set many passing records during his career. He was the first quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards, despite playing during an era when NFL teams played shorter seasons of 12 or 14 games (as opposed to today's 16-game seasons). He also threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games between 1956 and 1960, a record that still stands and is considered by many the Mount Everest-like football equivalent to Joe DiMaggio's 56-game baseball hitting streak.

Life After Football

After his playing days were finished, Unitas settled in Baltimore, where he raised his family while also pursuing a career in broadcasting, doing color commentary for NFL games on CBS in the 1970s. Unitas, Brooks Robinson, and Cal Ripken Jr. are generally considered the city's foremost sports icons.

After Robert Irsay moved the Colts franchise to Indianapolis in 1984, Unitas was so outraged that he cut all ties to the relocated team (though his #19 jersey is still retired by the Colts). Other prominent old-time Colts followed his lead. He asked the Pro Football Hall of Fame on numerous occasions to remove his display unless it was listed as belonging to the "Baltimore" Colts, not the Indianapolis Colts. The Hall of Fame has not complied with the request. Unitas donated his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore. These items are now on display in the Sports Museum at Camden Yards.

Unitas also actively lobbied for another NFL team to come to Baltimore. After the NFL returned to Baltimore as the Ravens for the 1996 season, Unitas and most of the other old-time Colts regarded the Ravens as the true successors of the Baltimore Colts. Unitas was frequently seen on the Ravens' sidelines at home games and received a thunderous ovation every time he was pictured on each of the JumboTrons at M&T Bank Stadium.

When the NFL celebrated its first 50 years, Unitas was voted the league's best player. Retired Chicago Bears quarterback Sid Luckman said of Unitas, "He was better than me. Better than (Sammy) Baugh. Better than anyone."

Personal life

Unitas was married to his high school sweetheart Dorothy Hoelle on November 20, 1954; they had five children. One hour after he divorced Dorothy in Reno on June 26, 1972, Unitas married Sandra Lemon; they had three children and stayed together until his death.

Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players suffered during the early years of football, before padding and other safety features designed to prevent such injuries had been invented. Unitas himself lost near-total use of his right hand, which had become mangled by the end of his playing career, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably disfigured from being repeatedly broken.

On September 11, 2002, Unitas died suddenly while working out at a physical therapy facility in Baldwin, Maryland, of a myocardial infarction (heart attack).


After his death, many fans of the Baltimore Ravens football team petitioned the renaming of the Ravens' home stadium (owned by the State of Maryland) after Unitas. These requests, however, were unsuccessful, since the lucrative naming rights had already been leased by the Ravens to the Buffalo, New York, based company, M&T Bank. However, a statue of Unitas was erected as the centerpiece of the plaza in front of the Stadium and the plaza was officially named "Unitas Plaza." Large banners depicting Unitas in his Baltimore Colts heyday now flank the entrance to the stadium. Many loyal Baltimore football fans observe the ritual of rubbing the shoe of the statue of Unitas prior to entering the stadium for a Ravens home game.

  • Unitas holds the record for most Pro Bowl appearances (ten) by a quarterback.
  • He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
  • Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award has been awarded annually to the top senior quarterback of the current year in college football.
  • In 1999, he was ranked No. five on "The Sporting News'" list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, behind only Joe Montana among quarterbacks. In 2004 a TSN special feature on the 50 Greatest Quarterbacks ranked Unitas number one and Montana number two.
  • The football stadium at Towson University was renamed Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2002.
  • Unitas set the record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 47 games. This record is currently regarded as one of sport's "unbreakable" records.

Career stats

Passing Stats
Year Team G Passing
Yards Pct. TD Int. Sacks-Lost Pass
1956 Baltimore 12 198-110 1,498 .556 9 10 n/a-202 74.0
1957 Baltimore 12 301-172 2,550 .571 24 17 n/a-212 88.0
1958 Baltimore 10 263-136 2,007 .517 19 7 n/a-120 90.0
1959 Baltimore 12 367-193 2,899 .526 32 14 n/a-125 82.6
1960 Baltimore 12 378-190 3,099 .503 25 24 n/a-190 73.7
1961 Baltimore 14 420-229 2,990 .545 16 24 n/a-204 66.1
1962 Baltimore 14 389-222 2,967 .571 23 23 n/a-255 76.5
1963 Baltimore 14 410-237 3,481 .578 20 12 42-298 89.7
1964 Baltimore 14 305-158 2,824 .518 19 6 37-254 96.4
1965 Baltimore 11 282-164 2,530 .582 23 12 29-221 97.4
1966 Baltimore 14 348-195 2,748 .560 22 24 21-146 74.0
1967 Baltimore 14 436-255 3,428 .585 20 16 25-198 83.6
1968 Baltimore 5 32-11 139 .344 2 4 2-15 30.1
1969 Baltimore 13 327-178 2,342 .544 12 20 12-93 64.0
1970 Baltimore 14 321-166 2,213 .517 14 18 19-158 65.1
1971 Baltimore 13 176-92 942 .523 3 9 15-129 52.3
1972 Baltimore 8 157-88 1,111 .561 4 6 14-114 70.8
1973 San Diego 5 76-34 471 .447 3 7 14-96 40.0
Totals 211 5,186-2,830 40,239 .546 290 253 230-3,090 78.2

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bolus, Jim, and Billy Reed. Cardinal Football. Champaign, IL: Sports Masters, Inc., 1999. ISBN 978-1583820483
  • Callahan, Tom. Johnny U: The Life and times of John Unitas. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007. ISBN 978-1400081400
  • Lazenby, Roland. Johnny Unitas: The Best There Ever Was. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2002. ISBN 978-1572435469

External links

All links retrieved August 3, 2022.


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