'Greatest Game' another workday for Johnny U, the modest hero

December 28, 2008|By RICK MAESE | RICK MAESE,rick.maese@baltsun.com

Fifty years ago, an undersized defensive back named Andy Nelson climbed into a car alongside a 25-year-old, fresh-faced quarterback. Was it a Pontiac? A Chevrolet? Tricky thing about time: Just as easily as it can help shape a legacy, it can fade a memory.

Nelson and his friend drove together to Memorial Stadium, where they would catch a bus to the airport, where they would board a plane for New York, where they would make history just a couple of days later.

If there were only a way to get into his head. Just an inch below the thin crew cut. Just a hair below the thin crease that passed for a grin. Did the young quarterback have any idea? Did he talk about what was awaiting them?

The radio was probably playing, but they surely didn't discuss the game.

"He was a man of very few words, and I was, too," Nelson says. "We weren't much company. I was dull as a doorknob, and Johnny just didn't talk much before a game."

Something happened along the way. Was it a flat tire? Did the engine overheat? Time knows; Nelson doesn't. They pulled over. Whatever it was, they fixed it quickly. Destiny's speed bump didn't slow them down much.

Nothing was stopping them, in fact. The Baltimore Colts had a job to do. Professional football was about to change. And John Unitas was about to became Johnny U.

Ernie Accorsi was only 16 when the Colts met the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game. Decades later, he would serve as general manager for the Giants, and every year, on the anniversary of "The Greatest Game Ever Played," Accorsi would find himself driving up the Franklin D. Roosevelt Drive, passing Yankee Stadium as he headed to work. And every year, he would call his old friend.

"You know what today is?" Accorsi would ask.

"No," Unitas would respond. "I don't know."

"Come on, John. It's Dec. 28."

"What's that?"

The most impressive part about Unitas' performance was left at Yankee Stadium on that bitter cold afternoon. But the most surprising part is how little it seemed to affect him.

Sure, his legacy changed. In the matter of just a few hours, with a record 40 million people watching on television, Unitas went from relative anonymity to nationwide sensation.

It was as if the entire sport - not to mention the title game - hinged on one man's shoulder.

"I ran into [Colts defensive lineman Art] Donovan in the press box a few years ago, and he said, 'There's that Sam Huff,' " the Giants' Hall of Fame linebacker says. "And I said, 'Artie, you give us John Unitas, and it would've been no contest.' And he paused for a second and said, 'Well, you might be right.' "

As time passed, the game seemed to affect everyone but the one man who played the defining role. He wasn't an unwilling participant. More likely, an unknowing one. To him, the 1958 championship game was another Sunday, another chance to put on a helmet and earn a paycheck playing catch with Raymond Berry.

"I remember someone asked him if he ever got up for a game," John Unitas Jr. says. "And he said, 'Yeah, I got up every morning.' That's what he did, how he approached his job."

Years later, his wife, Sandra, would have a trophy case installed in his office. John Ziemann, a friend, remembers visiting. As Ziemann oohed and aahed at the history collected, Unitas barely raised an eye.

"You want to see something really neat?" Unitas finally asked. "Check this out."

He showed his friend a picture of John Wayne. It wasn't a Colt appreciating a cowboy. It was a cowboy appreciating a cowboy.

A third meeting

For just the second year, Unitas entered the 1958 season as the Colts' starting quarterback.

Before they collided in the championship game, the Colts and Giants had faced each other twice that year. When they met in the preseason, New York's Frank Gifford remembers staring at the lanky kid with the crew cut and black high tops and scratching his head.

"We said, 'Who the hell is that?' " Gifford says.

By Dec. 28, 1958, they certainly knew.

There was reason, though, for the Colts to worry about how Unitas might perform in New York. Sure, he had thrown touchdown passes in 25 straight games (he would eventually extend his streak to 47, a mark that hasn't been topped since and probably never will be), but he had played recent games with three cracked ribs. In fact, he missed two November contests because of the injury and planned to take the field against the Giants wearing what news reports called either a harness or 9 pounds of padding.

Just two days before the game, The Sun reported Unitas was struggling.

"One disturbing thing at yesterday's drill was John Unitas' inaccuracy with his passes," the newspaper reported. "While the defense was studying and working against the New York plays, the Colt quarterback threw passes to his receivers at the other end of the field. ... [The receivers] each tried his favorite maneuver under the watchful eyes of offensive ends coach Bob Shaw.

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