Youngster's drive couldn't be sacked

Growing up in difficult circumstances, John Unitas had the makings of a quarterback even as a child, but his legendary career might never have come to pass if not for some good fortune.

John Unitas 1933 - 2002

October 20, 2002|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

When John Unitas was in seventh grade at a Catholic grade school in the hard hills south of downtown Pittsburgh, his teacher asked each of the students in his class what they wanted to be when they grew up.

A pro football player, Unitas said.

His dream didn't just come true; Unitas was widely recognized as the greatest quarterback who ever played when he died last month at age 69, having experienced a life of accomplishment and glory beyond even a child's wildest imaginings.

Until he broke in with the Baltimore Colts as a rookie in 1956, however, his dream was laughably impossible to envision. Unitas was a fatherless child of the Depression, a 135-pound high school star and a bowlegged quarterback on outmanned teams at the University of Louisville, tough but obscure, talented but luckless, seemingly destined to exist outside the mainstream that funneled players to the NFL.

He had the high-top cleats, buzz haircut, golden arm, innate confidence and no-nonsense demeanor that would later define him to generations of football fans, but his surroundings were modest, his audience was sparse and his prospects were dim.

"He had within him all of the amazing qualities that were later exposed, but they didn't get a chance to show themselves," said his cousin Joe Unitas.

Yet Unitas' dream never wavered, remaining obvious most clearly to his mother, brother and two sisters.

"You couldn't help but see it: Every book he ever got out of the library was a book about a quarterback," said his younger sister, Shirley. "He was always reading something like The Sid Luckman Story. All he wanted was football."

Unitas' sister, cousin and many of his former classmates, neighborhood friends and teammates still reside in the Pittsburgh area and were recently interviewed by The Sun for this story. They described a young Unitas who kept his football ambitions to himself other than the day when his teacher asked.

Voicing such a fanciful, faraway aspiration simply wasn't appropriate in an environment in which money was scarce.

Needs vs. wants

"My mother was raising four kids by herself," Shirley said. "She had a saying: `If it's a need, we can talk about it, but if it's a want, don't bring it up.' "

Money, food and clothes were needs. Everything else was a want.

"Our street wasn't paved and our neighborhood was rough," Shirley said. "Your dreams were more basic. You dreamed about making a little more money."

Pro football?

"It was a million miles away," said Joe Chilleo, who lived up the street from Unitas and went to school with him. "You can look back now and see that John wanted something and was very, very driven to achieve it. But no one talked about it or thought about it at the time. Pro football was just too far from our world."

The Unitases' circumstances weren't as difficult when John was born in 1933. His father, Francis, operated a coal delivery service that enabled the family to live in a new home in Brookline, one of Pittsburgh's better suburban neighborhoods. Francis and his wife, Helen, had four children over a seven-year span. Leonard was six years older than John. Millicent was four years older. Shirley was born a year after John.

Francis was a strong, athletic Lithuanian who had survived a difficult childhood. Consigned to a Pittsburgh orphanage with twin brothers, he was left alone when one twin died of influenza and the other died hopping a freight train. When he turned 16, he left the orphanage and set out to find other members of his family. His search took him to Century, W.Va., a coal-mining enclave where he met a Lithuanian immigrant named Helen Superfisky. They married and settled in Pittsburgh.

At 6 feet and 170 pounds, Francis had played baseball well enough to attract pro scouts until a foot injury curtailed his career. Legend had it that he had once won a bet by lifting the back wheels of his coal delivery truck from the gutter to the sidewalk. He was living out the American Dream, providing for his family with his pair of trucks that delivered coal used to heat homes.

Then he contracted pneumonia and died in a hospital at age 38.

John was 4.

"My father's kidneys `locked' and uremic poisoning went through," Shirley said. "It was the kind of thing dialysis would prevent today."

He had never taken out a life insurance policy.

"My mother was left with zilch," Shirley said.

Mother instilled toughness

Her relatives suggested she send her children to an orphanage, but she refused. Instead, she sold the house in Brookline, moved to a cheaper, two-bedroom home on William Street in Mount Washington, a working-class neighborhood, and took in an uncle. He and the boys slept in one bedroom, Helen Unitas and the girls in the other. Helen hired drivers to keep her late husband's coal delivery trucks running, and also sold insurance, worked in a bakery and spent nights cleaning offices in downtown Pittsburgh. Later, she went to night school, earned a degree and worked as a bookkeeper for the city government.

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