Colts legend John Unitas dead at 69

Hall of Famer suffers heart attack while exercising at clinic

A field leader, great friend

Quarterback brought titles to Baltimore, popularity to the NFL

1933 - 2002

John Unitas

September 12, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Johnny Unitas, the legendary quarterback whose cool demeanor and pinpoint passing brought championships to the Baltimore Colts and popularity to the National Football League, died yesterday of a heart attack. He was 69.

The Hall of Famer was exercising at the Kernan Physical Therapy center in Timonium when he collapsed about 3 p.m. Doctors and nurses at the center attempted to resuscitate him but he died at the scene, according to a statement released by the St. Joseph Medical Center, where his body was taken.

"This is stunning, sad, sad news. He was a good friend, my contemporary. He helped make me love this game more," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "This is a sad day for the NFL community and an even sadder day for Baltimore."

Longtime friend Richard Sammis, owner of Town & Country Auto Brokers in Timonium, said he was with Mr. Unitas yesterday at the former player's office in the auto brokerage. He seemed healthy and happy, Mr. Sammis said.

"We were laughing and joking, and he did some business and made some calls," Mr. Sammis said. "Then he walked up the steps with his briefcase and said he was going to go work out."

Known as "The Golden Arm," Mr. Unitas owned virtually every NFL passing record at the time of his retirement in 1973, from career attempts to most 300-yard games.

Many of those marks have been eclipsed, but still standing is his string of 47 consecutive games with a touchdown, from 1956 to 1960. It is, along with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball, considered one of the most unbeatable records in sports.

"He was absolutely the best quarterback who ever played pro football," said Jim Mutscheller, a retired Colts receiver who caught many Unitas passes.

"He was the best ever at concentrating on what he was doing and not getting rattled by defensive linemen trying to kill him. He made pro football in his time," Mr. Mutscheller said.

In 2000, Mr. Unitas was selected as one of four quarterbacks for the NFL's All-Time Team.

Born John Constantine Unitas to a working-class family in Pittsburgh, he became the ultimate Cinderella story and an inspiration for generations of youths. He was an unheralded and undersized passer at the University of Louisville and was the 102nd pick in the NFL's 1955 draft. The Pittsburgh Steelers cut him before the season.

He took a construction job in Pittsburgh and signed with the semipro Bloomfield Rams, who paid him $6 a game and played on a junior high school field strewn with cinders from nearby steel mills.

In 1956, he was signed as a free agent backup by the Colts. On Oct. 21, in a game against the Chicago Bears, Mr. Unitas took over for an injured starter. His first pass was intercepted for a touchdown. On his next play, he fumbled a handoff that the Bears recovered for another touchdown. The 20-14 lead he had inherited dissolved into a 58-27 loss.

But he persevered, displaying the grit that would, along with his crew-cut haircut and black high-top shoes, become his trademark.

His rookie completion rate of 55 percent set a record. The next year he was named the league's Most Valuable Player.

In 1958, he led the Colts to their first championship, an epic matchup against the New York Giants that has been called "the greatest game ever played."

The Colts were underdogs playing against the NFL's most glamorous franchise. But Mr. Unitas' fearless manner and unorthodox play-calling kept the score even and led to the first overtime in NFL post-season history, which the Colts won 23-17.

"It was his field generalship that won that game," said Joe Horrigan, a historian and vice president of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. "He was cool in the huddle and cool in the game."

The televised drama convinced the networks of football's programming potential. Two years later, the NFL had its first network contract and Baltimore's raucous Memorial Stadium was the backdrop for a nation's growing obsession with the NFL.

"At a time when national television was beginning to focus on the NFL, `Johnny U' captured the public's imagination and helped drive the growing popularity of professional football," said NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue. "One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, he epitomized the position with his leadership skills and his ability to perform under pressure."

By the end of the next decade, Baltimore was the center of the sports universe with Mr. Unitas leading the Colts and Brooks Robinson playing third base for the Orioles. From 1969 to 1971, the Colts went to two Super Bowls(1969 and 1971) and the Orioles to three World Series.

Fans thrilled to Mr. Unitas' aggressive play, which favored aerial bombardment over a conservative ground attack. Teammates were awed by his disregard for oncoming rushers and his ability to play through broken bones and other injuries. Baltimoreans fell in love with a plain-spoken, rough-hewn hero who epitomized their city of steelworkers and longshoremen.

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