Selected journalism by Stephen J. Dubner|
John Unitas, Steel-Town Quarterback
By STEPHEN J. DUBNER
The New York Times Magazine (2002)
It could have happened in the factory belt of upstate New York or in the Carolina textile towns or in Kentucky coal country, but it didn't. It happened in Pittsburgh. It was there, up and down the three rivers where all that steel got made, that football was converted from a manly game for East Coast elites into a religion for blue-collar stoics. The game was taken up by club teams, steel-mill teams, library teams, church teams, high-school and college teams and, eventually, a moribund professional team called the Steelers. Football was a distraction from Pittsburgh's famously hard-knock life. (As a U.S. Steel executive once said: "I have always had one rule. If a workman sticks up his head, hit it.") But football was also a corollary of such a life. In the locker room after one Steelers game, Art Rooney, the team's owner, came upon a lineman who had been kicked in the groin. He had played the entire game, but now hurt so badly that he couldn't even peel off his uniform. As Rooney drove home with his five sons, he clucked with admiration. "Now that," he told his boys, "is a real football player."
John Unitas was a real football player, too. He was tough from the outset. His father died when he was 4; by the time John -- he hated Johnny -- was 8, he was hauling coal through the streets after school. If he hadn't been scrawny, bowlegged, bird-chested and stoop-shouldered, he might have made a fine lineman. What he did have were huge hands and a rifle arm, so he became a quarterback.
He played at a tiny Catholic high school, then a second-tier college and in 1955 was drafted by the lowly Steelers. Unitas was the fourth quarterback in training camp.
"He never got a chance to perform," Art Rooney Jr. recalls. "During drills, every time it was Unitas's chance, the coach would look at the clock and blow his whistle."
The Rooney sons stayed after practice to let Unitas wing passes at them. What a perfect ball he threw! One of the Rooneys wrote his father a letter, 11 pages,
detailing the young quarterback's gifts. But Unitas was cut without ever throwing a pass. The Steelers considered their third-string quarterback a better bargain, since
he could also punt. "We were stingy," Art Rooney Jr. says, "but on top of being stingy, we were stupid too."
Unitas found work as a pile driver and quarterbacked a sandlot football team for $6 a game. The following summer he was picked up by the Baltimore Colts and
became, within a few quick years, the best quarterback in the game. Who can say what he might have done for the Steelers if they hadn't cut him? As it was, they
kept on losing -- the Curse of Unitas, some said, as nasty as the one that Boston incurred for selling Babe Ruth to the Yankees.
It was the 1958 title game against the Giants that sent Unitas, and the National Football League, into the bright lights. On national television, with time expiring, Unitas
coolly marched his Colts down the field for a tying field goal. In sudden-death overtime, he won the game with a 13-play drive - "the 13 plays to glory," as they are
known in the football canon. Thirty years later, Unitas could still recite those 13 plays, in order, by name.
Unitas invented the role of the modern quarterback, football's marquee position. He set records and won championships, but above all he showed how to run the
show. Before long, the Pittsburgh steel valley was flooding the N.F.L. with quarterbacks: Joe Namath, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino. Pittsburgh has always
produced an inordinate number of N.F.L. players, but its quarterback output borders on the freakish. No one has ever been able to offer a satisfactory answer --
unless the answer was John Unitas.
He called no attention to himself and did everything well. He practiced endlessly, threw flawlessly, called plays brilliantly, faked convincingly, ran when he had to,
blocked whenever he could, never trashed a teammate. And, being from Pittsburgh, he took his punishment well. Steve Sabol, then a cameraman for N.F.L. Films
and now its president, learned to keep his camera trained on Unitas even after he threw the ball. "There were no rules in those days to protect the quarterback,"
Sabol says, "and after every pass, Unitas was hit -- in the throat, in the nose, in the stomach, across the knees." In a famous 1960 Colts-Bears matchup -- some call it
the most brutal football game ever played -- Unitas's face was so battered that his teammates couldn't bear to look at him. The Colts' trainer tried to take him out of
the game. "If you take me out, I'll kill you," Unitas said, and probably meant it. Instead, he packed mud up his nose to staunch the bleeding. Years later, he couldn't
see what the fuss was about: "I mean, I didn't throw with my face."
Unitas wasn't much for self-examination. When pressed, he attributed his toughness to his mother. "We did what we had to in order to get along," he once recalled.
"We didn't panic. My mother had real challenges raising us without a husband and father. Playing football couldn't compare."
In 1973, after 17 seasons with the Colts, he was sold to the San Diego Chargers. He probably should have retired. "Everything in his makeup that made him what he
was made it hard for him to leave," says Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the Giants, who was then the Colts' publicity man. "They're different than we are." In the
fourth game of the 1973 season, the Chargers played the Steelers. It was, amazingly, Unitas's first-ever start in his hometown. The Steelers mauled him. He was too
old to run away, too bruised to fight them off. Six times he was sacked in the first half, then yanked at intermission. That was the last game he would ever start. The
following season, with Unitas and his Curse out of the way the Steelers finally won a championship after 40 years of trying.
His afterlife, like that of most athletes, never measured up. He wasn't a great businessman. He was bitter about making so much less money than today's players and
bitter that the N.F.L. turned down his disability claim. He had two artificial knees and a worthless right hand. "I have no strength in the fingers," he told a reporter last
year. "I can't use a hammer or saw around the house. I can't button buttons. I can't use zippers. Very difficult to tie shoes. I can't brush my teeth with it, because I
can't hold a brush. I can't hold a fork with the right hand. I can't pick this phone up. You give me a full cup of coffee, and I can't hold it." When the N.F.L. tried to
make nice, inviting Unitas to stand over the Super Bowl coin toss, he turned them down. He had a card show that day, he told them, a paying gig. But when he died,
in Baltimore, everybody in football came to his funeral.