Forward pass: Warner, Unitas are two of a kind

February 05, 2000|By John Steadman

Through the often strange but captivating scenarios evolving in sports come stories equipped with intriguing parallels. John Unitas and Kurt Warner. Two quarterbacks from the "other side of the tracks." Neither born with privileged opportunities, yet making the grade on their own and utilizing football ability to gain prominence and a measure of wealth.

They represent the kind of biographies, Horatio Alger material, that attracts the attention of America. Warner's past is much like Unitas', or is it vice versa? Three times Unitas was the most valuable player of the Pro Bowl, where Warner closes out a stupendous season tomorrow, but the similarity between them is significantly marked by the personal struggles they've endured.

Unitas' father died when he was a child in Pittsburgh, forcing his widowed mother to scrub floors in city-owned office buildings and try to find a way to go to evening classes with the hope to increase her earning power. Warner's mother took almost the same route. His parents were divorced in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, when he was a child, but the mother was self-employed, taking jobs cleaning houses and baby-sitting handicapped children. Mrs. Unitas and Mrs. Warner were only interested in paying their way through life and holding the families together, a mark of true greatness.

So the mothers of Unitas and Warner were the true stars in raising their sons, giving them direction and a powerful yet quiet desire to succeed. Both boys went to small Catholic high schools and played football -- Unitas at St. Justin in Pittsburgh and Warner at Regis in Cedar Rapids. Regis is no longer operating on its own, but merged with another school for financial reasons.

Continuing the similarity theme, both received athletic scholarships, but not at major football universities, Unitas at Louisville, Warner at Northern Iowa. They were close to being lost in the shuffle, but accepted the challenges that came with the struggle.

Unitas was even discarded by his own hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had drafted him in the ninth round in 1955. He got $10 bus fare when released in training camp, but put the money in his pocket and hitchhiked home from Olean, N.Y. Warner, a free agent signed by the Green Bay Packers, was waived in 1994, then joined the Arena League to try indoor football for three seasons, and spent 1998 playing in Europe.

Teams carrying the nickname Rams were to play pivotal roles in their endeavors, although in far different venues -- Unitas for $6 a game with the semipro Bloomfield Rams in greater Pittsburgh. He and the Rams often played on worn-out grass, where oil had to be spread to control the dust. Warner, though, hit the jackpot when he got back to the NFL via the Rams (St. Louis variety).

Both had been understudies to regular quarterbacks who went down with knee injuries, George Shaw in Baltimore and Trent Green in St. Louis, who had signed a contract through 2002 worth $16.5 million. Opportunities eventually came to Unitas and Warren. When the door opened each quickly asserted himself in a starting role.

Unitas and Warner had been up against it in finding employment after their first football trials. Fulfillment of the dreams had been summarily denied. Unitas went to work as the "high man" for a rigging company, and Warner stacked groceries for $5.50 per hour at a Hy-Vee supermarket in Waterloo, Iowa, while his wife-to-be needed food stamps to survive with two children by an earlier marriage.

In their first championship games, Unitas in his third season and Warner in his second, they lifted their teams, the Baltimore Colts and Rams, to victories. Each was picked as the MVP in the game, which meant Unitas was presented a Corvette by Sport magazine and Warner a Ford-150 Super Crew, a top-of-the-line pickup truck valued at $32,000.

They trimmed their hair in comparable styles, too. Unitas had a compact crew cut; Warner, married to an ex-Marine he met at a country music dance hall, has his hair cut to a reasonable facsimile of how Unitas once wore his.

Both are humble in their manner. The one vast difference is their salaries. Unitas made $7,000 as a rookie Colt in 1956; Warner received the now minimum of $250,000 as a Ram. Both received postseason bonuses from management for their performances. Unitas got rewarded with an extra $1,000; Warner was given $500,000.

Oh, yes, there's one other difference. Warner ties on low-cut shoes, Unitas the old, once-conventional high tops, which were to become his trademark. In technique, they show some of the same mannerisms, but Warner has more passes knocked down at the line of scrimmage than Unitas because of how he releases the ball, a point that can be corrected by getting him to position the ball high behind his ear before coming forward.

When Warner, asked what the moral of his road to success has been, simply, and concisely, somewhat as Unitas might do, answered, "I don't know. You tell me." And Unitas always said, "I don't study how I throw; I just look for an open receiver and let it go." Nothing complicated for either one. Natural talent carried them. Now the spotlight is on Warner, celebrated and admired, following in the cleat-marks Unitas made 44 years ago.

Two different quarterbacks, separated by a distinct time line, yet in so many ways the same in physical ability, emotional stability and, so far, achieving remarkable goals when the fires of pressure build to their highest intensity.

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