The man who put pro football on the map

Review Sports

November 05, 2006|By Allen Barra | Allen Barra,Special to the Sun

Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas

Tom Callahan

Crown Publishers / 304 pages / $25

Pro football may be, as many pundits claim, our national sport, but it has created very little in the way of genuine memories. More Americans watch the Super Bowl than any other sporting event, but very few of the players make an impression on today's sports fans. As the Giants' Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff points out in Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas, there were 15 Hall of Famers on the same field during the televised era's first great game, the 1958 sudden-death clash between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts. "From last year's Super Bowl," says Huff, "can you name 15 players? Today you don't know who's playing for who." And of all the players on the field, "Unitas was the master."

Johnny Unitas was the National Football League's first household name, the first pro football player to be recognized on a level with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Modern pro football is practically dated from his first championship season in 1958. Amazingly, half a century after Unitas began his professional career, Johnny U, by Tom Callahan, a sports columnist with the Washington Post, is the first book to tell us how and why Unitas kick-started a legend.

Callahan's writing is appropriate to his subject, lean and unpretentious, and to the point. Like Johnny U, he rises to the occasion in the big games. Those never fortunate enough to have watched Unitas play will feel as if they have to clean grass stains off their pants after reading this book.

John Constantine Unitas was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 and raised by his Lithuanian immigrant mother after his father died when John was 5. He was born working-class and stayed that way. At the height of his fame, gossip columnist Louella Parsons, who made a living from champagne-fueled conversation with Cary Grant and Clark Gable, sought an interview. "Sure, Louella," he told her, "sit your ass down and let's have a beer." Parsons fled.

Like most great stars of his generation, Unitas used football as a ticket out of a life of factory labor. From his high school coach, Max Cary, he learned "that a quarterback can't just be one of the boys. ... You can sit with them. You can have a joke. You can have a drink. But you always have to keep a certain distance." He developed such mental tenacity that, according to one of his All-Pro receivers, John Mackey, "Playing with Johnny Unitas was like being in the huddle with God."

But not right away. After failing to gain a scholarship from Notre Dame and Pittsburgh, he had an up-and-down college career with the disorganized Louisville program. Upon graduation, no one wanted him; he was finally taken in the ninth round, and he earned a shot with the Colts only after being dumped by the Pittsburgh Steelers. "Cutting Unitas," writes Callahan, "would become the Steelers' signature blunder."

He came of age when the passing game was capturing the imagination of television viewers, when quarterbacks called their own plays and players' styles weren't subordinate to a brain trust of coaches. Unitas would flourish playing for Weeb Ewbank, winning two championships for a coach smart enough to know that Unitas called a better game than he could; he chafed under the micro-management of Don Shula, who outsmarted himself by not turning Unitas loose in big games.

From the late 1950s to the NFL's merger with the American Football League in 1970, the game was played by men whose names now sound mythical - men like Jim Brown, Alex Karras, Y.A. Tittle, Frank Gifford, and Unitas's great friend and rival, Green Bay Packers quarterback Bart Starr, men who were paid not much better than blue-collar workers today. "The time," as Callahan writes, "was different. The players lived next door to the fans, literally. There wasn't a financial gulf, a cultural gulf, or any other kind of gulf between them." Johnny Unitas, with his laser-like passing skill and riverboat gambler's flair, helped change all that by ushering football into the big-money TV era.

The game changed, becoming glitzier and more sophisticated, but Johnny Unitas stayed the same. He never felt the need to unburden himself to the public. When a sportswriter dryly inquired if he had written the autobiography that bore his name, he replied, "Hell, I didn't even read it." When the Pro Football Hall of Fame asked him for his memorabilia, he gave them everything but his shoes. "They're great for cutting the grass," he explained.

That grass didn't grow in Indianapolis. When Colts owner Robert Irsay snuck the franchise out of Baltimore in the middle of a night in 1984 - football's equivalent of the Brooklyn Dodgers moving to Los Angeles - Unitas requested that his statistics be removed from the Indianapolis record book. His explanation was simple: "I never played there." One hesitates to call it a curse, but the Colts haven't won a championship since they left Baltimore.

Allen Barra writes frequently on sports topics for Salon, the magazine Web site, and has produced a number of books on sports topics.

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