Ex-Colt Shaw a Pipp, but a Gehrig, too

January 05, 1998|By JOHN STEADMAN

Relegating George Shaw to the insignificance of a mere footnote in football history may be his unjust legacy -- in life, now in death and, yes, for perpetuity. Unfair. Unfortunate. He was subjected to a painful twist of fate on an October afternoon in 1956 and the physical duress that went with it when a damaged knee sent him crumbling to the ground. The injury enabled an unheralded substitute named John Unitas to run in from the sidelines as a replacement and, in turn, to touch the stars.

It was an ill wind in Chicago, along with a clean tackle by Fred Williams, that put Shaw on a stretcher and Unitas in the lineup, presenting the emergency stand-in with a mere crack in the door of professional opportunity. That was all he needed. Through the next 18 years, Unitas established himself as the consummate quarterback in the NFL and authored a pre-eminent story of success that even Horatio Alger couldn't have imagined.

Shaw died Saturday in his native Portland, Ore., from bone marrow cancer at 64. He was the same age as Unitas, but their football destinies evolved in vastly different directions. Unitas became an All-Pro, a quiet hero who didn't want to become a celebrity but became one anyhow. And Shaw? He was a stockbroker in his hometown, remembered by those who cared as the unfortunate quarterback who got hurt, giving Unitas his chance with the starting unit and, ultimately, to create a record and a reputation for performance under fire that stands alone.

"Maybe if George wouldn't have torn up his knee, I never would have gotten a chance," said Unitas, upon learning of Shaw's death. "The problem in making good in any sport is you have to be at a place where your ability is needed. Also, you've got to be ready. I thought George had enormous ability. He threw extremely well and had good speed when he had to run. As a person, he was friendly but never talked a lot. Just a nice kid."

The injury to Shaw was to take away some of his speed and catlike mobility -- his most imposing assets -- and what might have been a productive career never fulfilled itself. Meanwhile, the gifted Unitas forged onward, never forgetting the quarterback he succeeded, his first roommate with the team. Shaw was forced to find another line of work.

Shaw's vast athletic ability, combined with an IQ that approached genius, set him apart. There were no complaints from him about how it all turned out. He had been the first player taken in the 1955 draft, the glamorous bonus choice, which was a preview pick from a hat before the regular selection process began. Such talented players as Harry Gilmer, Chuck Bednarik, Leon Hart, Kyle Rote and Paul Hornung were among those who took the same exclusive route to pro football. It's a procedure no longer in vogue.

The Colts' naming of Shaw and those who followed in the 1955 draft was an all-time bonanza for the Baltimore club, with 12 selections out of 30 making the roster. Shaw, Alan "The Horse" Ameche, Dick Szymanski, L. G. "Long Gone" Dupre, Jack Patera and George Preas, the first six chosen by the Colts, all from major schools, moved in as first-team performers and, three years later, Baltimore was on its way to an NFL championship.

In his initial season, Ameche became the first freshman since Bill Paschal in 1944 to win the rushing title and also the NFL Rookie of the Year award. Shaw, with his exciting sprint-out style, was the runner-up.

The rich potential of Shaw changed suddenly and almost with finality when he injured his knee. Unitas got the hurry-up call and suffered through a difficult afternoon against the Bears, his first pass for Jim Mutscheller turning into a J. C. Caroline interception and a touchdown. Prevailing opinion was the Colts wouldn't be a threat until Shaw returned.

Unitas subsequently took command in such dominant fashion that Shaw never got his job back, similar to what happened in baseball way back when Wally Pipp had a headache in 1925 with the New York Yankees and a reserve first baseman, Lou Gehrig, assumed his place in the lineup. Gehrig and Unitas went to their respective halls of fame, Pipp and Shaw to secondary roles. The parallel for both was not without a tone of regrettable irony.

The impact Unitas made was overwhelming. Shaw, if not forgotten, was referred to in a San Francisco newspaper as playing "second fiddle." Every time we'd see each other, he'd strike the pose of a violinist and offer a smile.

He came from the University of Oregon with excellent credentials, four years a starter and twice an All-Pacific Coast Conference quarterback. As a 1951 freshman defensive halfback, he intercepted 13 passes in a 10-game schedule to set an NCAA mark that wasn't broken until 1968 by Mark Worley of Washington.

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