As kids, our parents tell us countless stories about the “good old days.” They talk about friends and family. Their high school days and athletic triumphs. Paper routes, pets, the old neighborhood and their first car. But, as much as anything else when I was growing up, my father told me about the legend ? Johnny Unitas.

Because I never saw him play ? he retired nearly a decade before I was even born ? pretty much everything I know about Johnny Unitas I learned from my father. For a child growing up in Baltimore in the 1950s and 60s, Unitas was more than a sports hero. He was a true icon, bigger than the game, bigger than life really. His royal blue number 19 Colts jersey was a sacred garment, and the entire community united around this notion and what it represented.

In his youth, my father and his friends would play football for hours in the empty parking lots of Baltimore. There was only one player that every child pretended to be. It was “Johnny U.” They were so enamored with his skills and his presence that they would imitate his sloop-shouldered, bow-legged walk or his tippy-toed drop-back in the pocket. And whenever given an opportunity to see a game live, there was a dream-filled Saturday night followed by intense bragging at school on the Monday after the game.

What he wasn’t blessed with from head to toe, Unitas made up for between his ears and inside his chest. A product of Mount Washington, Pennsylvania, and later the University of Louisville, Unitas wasn’t the tallest or the fastest. At first glance, Unitas hardly seemed a force to be reckoned with. He was even cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers and exiled to sandlots of semi-pro football before a fan wrote a letter to the Colts pleading that they look at Unitas. They did. And he changed the game forever.

Football historians are unanimous in their agreement that Unitas transformed the game of professional football from a third page story to the behemoth it is today. It all began when he directed the Colts to the NFL championship in 1958. He orchestrated the Colts on two dramatic drives ? one to tie the game with time expiring and the other to victory over the New York Giants in overtime. At game’s end Unitas headed back to the locker room, not with arms waving or chest pounding, but with quiet satisfaction like any working class guy, content with a finished piece of work.

Today, too much stress is placed on the 40-yard dash, bench press and body fat percentage. Unitas had almost none of the physical attributes that impress pro scouts today.

Instead, he possessed all the intangibles, the innate skills that can’t be timed or measured. Plain and simple, Unitas had the ability to lead his team to victory. He gained his edge up top, by thinking a game better than anyone else. Unlike most of the quarterbacks playing today, Unitas called his own plays. He took his team on his back, and thrived under the pressure.

While most modern quarterbacks are notorious for being permanent residents of the “day-to-day” injury list, Unitas took pride in being beaten up. Collapsed lungs, broken ribs, swollen knees and sore arms left over from Sunday afternoon battles validated his cause. Pain never existed in his vocabulary. It was more of a distraction created by the other teams to make them feel better about their chances against the Colts.

He was as meticulous with the ball during a late game comeback as a surgeon is with his scalpel. Cutting, carving, ducking and dissecting, all with uncanny precision and grace. Unitas was a winner. He knew it. Everyone knew it.

Unitas was not just a blue-collar athlete playing in a blue-collar town. He was Baltimore. When the kid with the crew cut and black high top spikes came to play, it was with a purpose. Unitas commanded the respect of his opponents, his coaches and most importantly, his teammates and the whole community. He could always find a way to win. He would always find a way to win.

Even in his retirement from football, when the football gods could no longer oversee his play calling, Unitas remained loyal to his values. He suffered defeats ? divorce, bankruptcy, crippling arthritis ? but never hung his head, and always looked to provide hope for others.

When I called my father last week to tell him about Unitas’ death, he took a moment to collect himself and then proceeded to tell me one more story about the legend.

It seems that for the past 30 to 40 years, Johnny U would spend every Easter Sunday visiting one of the old working-class neighborhoods of Baltimore. He would talk football with the older residents ? not because he wanted to, but because they did ? sign some autographs and play catch with the kids in the local neighborhood for hours.

They say his heart stopped beating last week. If you ask my father, he would argue that it never will.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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