Johnny Unitas, extolled in countless football arenas as one of the GREATEST QUARTERBACKS ever to play the game, was almost denied the chance to prove his talent.
Unitas began his career as field general while a sophomore at St. Justin's High School when the quarterback broke his ankle. Johnny U, it was decided, could throw the ball well enough and was moved to the QB position with less than a week to learn the entire offense. Johnny wanted very much to go to college to continue his sport and build himself a solid foundation for the future. However, his dream team, Notre Dame, was unwilling to take a gamble that his six foot, 138 pound frame would bulk up.
Unitas received an offer from the University of Louisville, and after some consideration, decided being a big fish in a small pond might be more to his advantage after all. He made a solid reputation for himself while at Louisville that got him into the ninth slot for the Pittsburgh Steelers draft of '55. Unitas was eventually told the club couldn't use him; they had too many quarterbacks. The Steelers had waited so long to let him go that it was too late for a chance of being drafted anywhere else. Johnny was left to construction work and the Bloomfield Rams, a semi-pro team that had to sprinkle its field with oil before every game to keep the dust down since there was no grass to do it.
Finally, one fateful day in February of 1956, the lucky call came. The Baltimore Colts were interested in what Johnny might be able to do for them. They saw. They liked. They bought. The $7,000 contract was a far cry from the $3 a game he had been making on his dusty field. So began a 17-year career with the Colts.
The 1958 title game in which Unitas took the Colts on two 80-yard drives to beat the New York Giants 23-17 is considered by many as the greatest pro football game ever played. Johnny U. retired in 1973 after one year with the San Diego Chargers. He left behind him records for: most pass attempts (5,186); most completions (2,830); most total yards (40,239); most touchdowns (290); most 300-yard games (26); and most consecutive games throwing touchdown passes (47). He led the Colts to one Super Bowl Crown, three NFL championships, and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
About the Legend
John Constantine “Johnny” Unitas (May 7, 1933- September 11, 2002), nicknamed “The Golden Arm” and often called Johnny U, was a professional American football player in the 1950s through the 1970s, spending the majority of his career with the Baltimore Colts. He was a record-setting quarterback and the National Football League’s most valuable player in 1959, 1964, and 1967. His record of throwing touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games (between 1956-1960) remains unsurpassed as of 2012. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time.
Unitas was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933. His father died when Johnny was four years old. His unusual surname was a result of a phonetic transliteration of a common Lithuanian last name Jonaitis. Attending St. Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played halfback and quarterback. After high school, Pitt offered a scholarship, but Unitas failed the entrance exam. The University of Louisville came through with a scholarship, and Unitas left home for Kentucky. He played quarterback for Louisville during his college career.
In his four-year career as a Louisville Cardinal, Unitas completed 245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns. It is recorded that the 6’1”Johnny Unitas weighed 145 pounds on his first day of practice at the University of Louisville.
High school: St. Justin's
College: Louisville (1951–1954)
NFL Draft: 1955 / Round: 9 / Pick: 102
Pittsburgh Steelers (1955)*
Baltimore Colts (1956–1972)
San Diego Chargers (1973)
* Offseason and/or practice squad member only
Career highlights and awards
Super Bowl champion (V)
3× NFL champion (1958, 1959, 1968)
3× NFL Most Valuable Player (1959, 1964, 1967)
NFL Man of the Year (1970)
5× First-team All-Pro (1958, 1959, 1964, 1965, 1967)
3× Second-team All-Pro (1957, 1960, 1963)
10× Pro Bowl (1957–1964, 1966, 1967)
4× NFL passing yards leader (1957, 1959, 1960, 1963)
4× NFL passing touchdowns leader (1957–1960)
2× NFL passer rating leader (1958, 1965)
NFL completion percentage leader (1967)
NFL 1960s All-Decade Team
NFL 50th Anniversary All-Time Team
NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team
NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team
3× Bert Bell Award (1959, 1964, 1967)
Indianapolis Colts No. 19 retired
Louisville Cardinals No. 16 retired
Career NFL statistics
Pass attempts: 5,186
Pass completions: 2,830
Completion percentage: 54.6
Passing yards: 40,239
Passer rating: 78.2