The mix that made him great

To get the most out of his golden arm, Unitas combined intelligence, poise, leadership, confidence and sheer will to create a legend.

John Unitas 1933 - 2002

October 20, 2002|By MIKE KLINGAMAN | MIKE KLINGAMAN,Sun Staff

They came to watch the cold war, to be fought at Memorial Stadium on an icy Sunday in late November 1958. On the field, Popsicle-hard at 2 o'clock, the high-flying Colts readied to play San Francisco, a team Baltimore had rarely beaten.

At game time, the mercury read 22 degrees and the crowd numbered 57,557, warmed by blankets, Boh beer and the bravado of a slope-shouldered young quarterback whose surname they had already sheared to a single vowel.

Johnny U will whup the 49ers. Didja see him against the Rams last week? Threw a TD pass to Lenny Moore on the first play. Bruised ribs? Ha! Unitas is tough. My kid's gettin' a crew cut, too, soon as this cold snap ends.

At 25, John Unitas had the Colts (8-1) on the rise, one step shy of a Western Conference crown. Also at stake was his streak of having passed for at least one touchdown in 22 consecutive games, one short of the NFL record set in 1942 by Green Bay's Cecil Isbell. But a championship ring was all that mattered, Unitas said. "Statistics are for losers," he told reporters before the game.

Who would have thought, on that cold November day, that the man who spoke those words would go on to set 22 NFL records? Incongruous as it sounds, it was Unitas' task-at-hand outlook that shaped a career in which he passed for more than 40,000 yards and 290 touchdowns. Also crucial were his savvy sense of leadership, indefatigable drive and the poise to harness his gifted right arm.

'You keep on coming'

When the Colts took the field against San Francisco, none of these attributes was apparent. Unitas stumbled, fumbled and played like he was worth about 80 cents -- the cost of the telephone call that had earned him a tryout two years before. By midgame, he'd completed five of 17 passes for a paltry 28 yards.

"John couldn't have hit a bull in the butt with a bass fiddle," receiver Raymond Berry recalls. One pass was picked off by linebacker Matt Hazeltine, who raced 13 yards for a 49ers touchdown. Bereft of direction, the Colts' game fell apart. "No phase of rotten football was overlooked," the Baltimore News-Post wrote of the first half.

Trailing 27-7, the home team slunk off amid a rare chorus of boos. "That [hooting] was a big deal," offensive guard Alex Sandusky says. "We felt like little kids being sent to stand in the corner."

It was a grim crowd that greeted the Colts' 125-piece marching band at halftime. "Sometimes we'd play a song called 'Oh! Johnny,' " says trombonist Bill Miller, now retired, of Columbia. He doesn't recollect the band playing Unitas' number that day, "though we still thought he'd somehow pull the game out."

As they filed into the dressing room, Coach Weeb Ewbank eyed his troops. "I've seen sicker cows than this get well," he said. Then Ewbank strode to the chalkboard and drew a giant "4" -- the number of touchdowns needed to win. End of speech.

What of Unitas? He sat quietly, rejecting the what-ifs while mulling over ways to save the day. "His reaction to adversity was pretty predictable," Berry said. "You keep on coming."

That, he did. The Colts stormed back with two long scoring drives, fullback Alan "The Horse" Ameche plowing over the goal line for both TDs. Mixing plays, threading passes, Unitas chipped away at San Francisco's lead, to the chagrin of Y.A. Tittle, the 49ers' star quarterback who watched from the sidelines.

"He was such a big believer," Tittle says of Unitas. "He never felt he was going to lose, and that confidence trickled down to his teammates."

'John, just get the first down'

And up to his coach. Once, on fourth down, Ewbank called his quarterback aside to talk tactics. Standing on the sideline, shivering, defensive end Gino Marchetti heard their words.

"Weeb said, 'Let's do this -- no, let's do that.' They were indecisive instructions, and John stood there, without emotion, just staring at him," Marchetti says. "Finally, Weeb threw up his hands and said, 'John, just get the first down.' "

Unitas fired a short pass to Berry to keep the drive alive. Minutes later, he sensed an opening and ordered an end run. Lenny Moore raced 73 yards for the go-ahead touchdown.

Delirious, some fans spilled onto the field, narrowly missing Dixie, the team mascot, a blue-eyed Welsh pony who galloped a victory lap around the stadium after every Baltimore score.

"Unitas had them in the end zone so often that day, the horse's tongue was hanging out," says R.C. Owens, a San Francisco receiver.

Says Sandusky, recalling the go-ahead touchdown: "Lenny went by me so fast, I didn't get to throw a block." Sandusky still marvels at Unitas' call: "John was like a pool hustler, always thinking three plays ahead."

Amazing turnaround

With two minutes remaining, Unitas struck again -- a 7-yard pass to Berry, capping a 35-27 victory and tying Isbell's mark.

There was no question who'd sparked the turnaround. Unitas completed 12 of 16 passes for 168 yards "while acting as cool as if he were playing in a pickup game," recalls Andy Nelson, defensive back.

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