October 22, 2006

OTHERWISE, DON'T PLAY:

How a legendary athlete became the heart of his team -- and of his city.: a review of JOHNNY U: The Life and Times of John Unitas By Tom Callahan (Jonathan Yardley, October 22, 2006, Washington Post)

Tom Callahan's affectionate account of the life and times of Johnny Unitas isn't so much a biography as an informal portrait, and it really is as much about the times as it is about the man, or, as he says, "less about a specific place in the country than a place where the whole country used to be." Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts of the National Football League in 1956, when professional football still existed at the periphery of American sports and when the money was anything except big. Callahan writes:

"The time 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. Except for a dozen Sundays a year, the Colts were occupied in the usual and normal pursuits of happiness. 'I remember when Alan and I bought our first row house,' Yvonne Ameche said. 'We paid eight thousand dollars for it. John Unitas came over and laid our kitchen floor. Everyone pitched in, painted and helped us get that little row house ready.' . . . In an annual visit to every locker room in the league, the Philadelphia-based commissioner of the NFL, DeBenneville 'Bert' Bell, emphasized the virtue of community. 'He told us,' [one Baltimore player] said, 'that if you're going to play professional football in a town, you have to live in that town, really live there. "Otherwise," he said, "don't play." A lot of us took that to heart.' "

Nobody could have known it at the time, but huge change was only a couple of years away. The decisive moment occurred in December 1958, when Unitas and the Colts defeated the New York Giants for the NFL championship in an overtime game for which the only appropriate adjective was, and remains, thrilling . I remember it as though it had just happened. I was 19 years old, at home from college for Christmas vacation, bored to the point of comatose. The school where my father was headmaster had a black-and-white television set in its recreation room, to which I retreated in desperation the afternoon of Dec. 28. I knew nothing about pro football when the game began and was hooked on it for life when it ended.

So too were millions -- literally, millions -- of other Americans.

MORE:
The Unitas Factor: How a skinny rookie QB turned the Colts into champs (Excerpted from Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas, by Tom Callahan)

The Colts beat the Los Angeles Rams in Baltimore (Unitas completed 18 of 24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns), but they mostly lost the rest of the way. "When it came time to play a postponed Redskins game [two days before Christmas]," the Sun's Snyder said, "everybody in town knew Weeb's job was on the line."

With 15 seconds left, the Colts had the ball on their 47-yard line, losing 17-12. "In the huddle," Mutscheller said, "John didn't call a play. He just gave the pass-blocking numbers and told me, 'Go deep, Jim, and then loop back. It'll be there.' I ran as fast as I could to the goal line, turned and came back a step, and there it was. Three Redskins and I jumped like basketball players going up for a rebound. I don't know how, but I tipped the ball [or it bounced off Norb Hecker's head] and then caught it on the way into the end zone as the gun went off. We won 19-17."

Ewbank's job was saved. Unitas's position was officially secured. John's 55.6 passing percentage for the season (110 completions in 198 attempts for 1,498 yards and nine touchdowns) was the best by a rookie quarterback in the 38-year history of the NFL. Nobody noticed, of course, but with that 53-yard heave to Mutscheller, John had passed for a touchdown in three straight games. One hundred and two touchdown passes later, on Dec. 11, 1960, the streak would end at 47 games.

"There was no crash of thunder early on when I thought to myself, This is going to be the great Johnny U," said Moore. "No. I could see that he was improving. But I was improving. Raymond was improving. Nobody really singled John out yet as being the reason we all were improving. But he was the reason. John was the first one of us to think in terms of being world champions. He made us rally around him. We didn't have a choice. Going into the second half of our rookie year, I had started to settle in. Hey, man, I thought, you can handle this after all. One morning before practice, JU looked over at me and said, 'You're feeling pretty happy with yourself, huh?' You see, he could read your mind. I told him, 'I know I've still got a lot to learn.' He smiled and said, 'Let's learn it together.'"

Ewbank could be decisive at important junctures, but his tendency to become flustered and tongue-tied under pressure combined with his cartoon build and fondness for pregame oratory to make him a figure of fun among the players. In those days the quarterback called most of the plays. Colts guard Alex Sandusky said, "We're in the huddle late in a game. It's third down, three or four yards to go. We need a TD. And here comes a play from the sideline: 'John, Weeb says to get the first down.' We're all trying not to laugh, but holy hell. Weeb sometimes would actually send in the play, 'Tell John to score a touchdown.'"

Unitas laughed along. He recalled this sideline exchange: "'Do you have anything for me?' I asked Weeb during a timeout. 'Nope.' 'Does anybody else?' I said. He checked with his assistants. 'Nope.' 'Nope.' 'Nope.' 'Honestly,' I said, 'I don't know why I even come over here.'" But the truth was, there were plays to get first downs and there were plays to get touchdowns. John knew what Weeb meant.

"Always, at some point in the game," Sandusky said, "Unitas would come up to you and say, 'Do you need anything? Should we run a draw play to get this guy off your ass? How can I help? What can I do?' At the same time, one of us might say, 'Hey, John, a trap should work pretty soon.' He'd inventory it. Invariably he'd get around to using it. Of course, we did all of our talking before the huddle formed. Unless he asked you a question, only John spoke in the huddle."

As Penn State seldom threw the ball, Moore wasn't certain he could catch it in the pros. "Weeb wanted all of the backs to learn the wide receiver position, too, just in case," Moore said. "This was what led to me becoming a flanker and to Mutscheller becoming a tight end and to the whole game changing." Lenny was catching the ball well enough, especially on the slant passes. So he was surprised and a little annoyed when Berry pulled him aside one afternoon to say, "We're not getting everything we can from you." "I thought, What the hell is he talking about?" Moore recalled. "'Hey,' I told him, 'John's the one calling the plays.' 'That's not what I mean. John's not going to throw to you if he doesn't have confidence in you, and he can't have confidence in you if you haven't worked with him. Lenny, John won't ask you to stay after practice. You've got to do it yourself. He has to know that after three and two-tenths seconds, this is where you're going to be. You've got to time it up with him.' From then on I stayed out after practice enough to win John's confidence."

In the huddle Unitas might ask, "What do you have?" and Moore might reply, "I can do the slant-takeoff-sideline. I'll see what else we got going later on."

"John wouldn't necessarily call it right away," Lenny said. "He'd file it in the back of his head. Raymond would come in and say, 'I can do a Z-out pattern. I can do a Q.' Most of the time John would go right to what Raymond suggested. But sooner or later he'd turn to me and ask, 'Do you think we can do that thing now?' Sometimes he'd get on a roll and just start reeling off my whole list. The angle-ins, the angle-outs, the angle-out-in, the angle-out-loop. As soon as I'd start to make my plant, I knew the ball was already in the air. I'd turn around and, wham, it would be on top of me. Three and two-tenths seconds."

Moore never stopped being astonished by how much of the field John could see, even under the worst duress. "There were 13 seconds left at Wrigley," Lenny said. "The Bears were leading us by three, and we were about 40 yards away. It had been a brutal game, typical Bears game. Alex Sandusky had to reach down into the mud to pack off John's bloody nose. His upper lip was shredded too. We get in the huddle, and John asks me, as casual as anything, 'You know Sixty-six?' 'Yeah, an angle in, at 12 yards, out of, like, the Sixty-two series.' 'Right. I want the line to give me the Sixty-two blocking protection, but I want you to give me the Sixty-six takeoff with a good look to the inside, like you're poised for a quick hitter. I'll make a real big pump. You make a real good head turn. Plant hard, then break to the outside and take off.'

"Sure enough, the fake drew the defensive back inside. JU laid it right out. Six points. I mean, with everything that was spinning around him at that moment, how in hell could he think of a play that we don't ever run? He had told me not just what to run but how to run it. He had been watching my man all game long and waiting. He knew exactly what my man was going to do when it mattered. I can't tell you how many games came down to a play like that."

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 22, 2006 9:55 AM
Comments

Nice little walk down Memory Lane.

Posted by: jdkelly at October 22, 2006 3:21 PM

I remember him well. I lived in Baltimore in the middle of the 1960's and Johnny U was a huge part of the city then. The thing about him was that he never forgot the people. The fans were always a big part of Johnny U and he appreciated it. He was there for us and he showed it. There was nothing showboaty about him or most of the rest of the team. You just knew that an ethical man was out there playing for the team and doing his best. What a difference from the players today.

I guess I was just lucky in living where I did. I grew up in north central Ohio when the Cleveland Browns were at the best. Then I lived in Baltimore and Washington when Johnny U and his teammates were at their peak. These were men who were truly a part of their community. They took a lot from the community but they also gave a lot back. When you needed someone to spice up a fund drive, Johnny U and his whole team was right there. When a little kid was fighting for his life, the team was there for him and visited him and cheered him up. They had businesses and they were there at the businesses. You had dinner at Johnny U's restaurant and Johnny U was there to greet you.

Good men working hard and doing their best. What a difference.

Posted by: dick at October 22, 2006 3:23 PM

I really loved the interviews with Art Donovan they used to put on ESPN.

Posted by: jdkelly at October 22, 2006 6:59 PM

My earliest fond memories of professional football were of watching JohnnyU scrambling around in his hightops and pulling off miracle wins, and of Jim Brown running the ball when everyone knew he was going to get it and still he managed to pick up yards.

I also miss the outdoor Nov/Dec grudge matches when it was snowing, the field was so muddy that by the fourth quarter all the uniforms were brown, and the final score was something like 6 to 3.

Posted by: jd watson at October 22, 2006 7:25 PM

Yup. Green Bay vs. my Bears

Posted by: jdkelly at October 22, 2006 7:56 PM

I met Johnny Unitas in 1985, when I was having an interview lunch at one of his restaurants. He said hello to all of us at the table and was friendly to everyone in sight. He looked happy, but he was scarred from all those years as a target for guys wanting to crush him.

Posted by: jim hamlen at October 22, 2006 10:53 PM
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