The first pro football player

Before Johnny Unitas, college stars were the only famous football players. The great No. 19 changed that forever -- and took the NFL to the top.


Allen Barra
September 21, 2002 11:35PM (UTC)

For many of us, Johnny Unitas was the first pro football player. I mean that in several senses. He was the first pro football player many of us knew, the first to be mentioned at the dinner table along with Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays and Yogi Berra, perhaps not as famous as them, but ... How shall I phrase this? The first pro football player whose name your mother knew. He was the first pro football player whose picture we recognized -- that crew cut looked like something he'd been born with -- the first football player whose number, 19, we wore, and the first one whose throwing style (right shoulder hunched down, both hands gripping the ball as he dropped back to throw) we tried to imitate like the windups of Sandy Koufax and Juan Marichal.

There were famous pro football players before Unitas -- Frank Gifford, Jim Brown, Otto Graham, Sam Huff, Norm Van Brocklin, but, with the possible exception of Brown (who became much more famous later, after Unitas led the Colts to championships on TV) and Sam Huff, a very good, never great, player who became famous for appearing in a CBS documentary on pro football called "The Violent World of Sam Huff," all of them were famous in the way hockey players are famous now. How famous was Unitas in 1960? About as famous as Wayne Gretsky about, say, 18 years ago, with this important difference: Unitas elevated the fame of the game he played to a new level.

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There were many football players before Unitas who were as famous as baseball players and boxers -- Red Grange, Bronco Nagurski, and Army's great Heisman trophy winners, Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis, to name only four -- but they had become famous as college players. Most of us who turned on the TV to watch Unitas couldn't have told you what college he was from. Last week when he died, most fans still couldn't.

Johnny Unitas, black high-topped shoes and crew cut, was an old-NFL kind of guy. That's old NFL as in pre-merger, pre-artificial turf, pre-cheerleader, pre-offensive and defensive specialists. It is currently being hotly debated as to whether or not he was the greatest quarterback of all time. I never thought he was, nor by any stretch of the imagination was the Giants-Colts 1958 sudden death championship game "the Greatest Pro Football Game Ever Played." (It was simply the first pro football game that a great many sports fans paid attention to.) But he was more of a quarterback than anyone in the modern game.

Unitas was the first, and one of the last, great quarterbacks to call his own plays, to be held responsible for the execution of an entire game plan. (Fellow Hall of Famers Bart Starr, Jim Kelly and Terry Bradshaw also called their own plays, or most of them.) The term "field general" was coined largely for him and will probably disappear from the lexicon when my generation passes. You can't be a "field general" when you have a higher-ranking general (surrounded by a bunch of colonels) standing on the sidelines telling you what a computer thinks you should do. In comparison, today's quarterbacks are at best passers and at worst snap-takers. You can't earn a nickname like "The Riverboat Gambler" when you're not allowed to gamble.

Johnny Unitas was a symbol of old-style football and its values, represented by a player's loyalty to his team and a team's loyalty to its community. When Robert Irsay snuck the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of the night, Unitas was disgusted and appalled and asked for his name and statistics to be removed from the Indianapolis Colts media guide. It always galled him that the league would not let the Colts comply. When the city of Baltimore wanted to erect a statue of him outside the stadium where his beloved Colts no longer played, he politely said that it "wasn't necessary."

He spent the last few years of his life virtually unable to pick up a fork with his right hand or to autograph a football without assistance, the result of a 1968 preseason injury against Dallas. He had hoped to receive league-financed disability payments but was told that he couldn't collect disability because he was receiving a monthly pension and had not filed for the disability before age 55. What a wonderful chance for the Players Association to show some uncharacteristic guts and the National Football League to show some even more uncharacteristic compassion. Instead, they let pro football's senior ambassador continue to make public appearances as a near-walking disaster.

Was he the greatest ever? As I had occasion to point out in an essay on Bart Starr, after beating the Giants in the 1959 NFL championship game, Johnny Unitas never again won an NFL championship, never again was able to win the big game. This has become conveniently forgotten by the scores of eulogizers like Sports Ilustrated's Frank Deford, who writes this week that "If there were one game scheduled, Earth vs. the Klingons, with the fate of the universe on the line, any person with his wits about him would have Johnny U. calling the signals in the huddle."

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I'm afraid if there were one big game between Earth and the Klingons and Frank Deford was choosing the quarterback, we'd all be speaking Klingonese. Starr dominated Unitas for eight seasons after he became Green Bay's regular quarterback, from 1960 through 1967, beating Unitas head-to-head in 10 out of 15 games and winning five championships to Unitas' none. I say this not to belittle Unitas but to elevate Bart Starr. It's enough for me to remember him as a great player and say that we won't see his like again -- or that if we do, we'll never know it because NFL scouts will send him packing to the Arena Football League. Next time somebody tries to sell you on the efficiency of NFL scouting, remind them that no one rushed to pick three of the greatest quarterbacks in league history -- Starr, Unitas and Joe Montana. As starting quarterbacks, they won 11 championship rings among them.

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If you watch the HBO replay of the Oscar De La Hoya-Fernando Vargas super-welterweight championship fight -- and if you like boxing, you really should catch this one -- be sure to watch for one of the most priceless moments in the history of boxing commentary. After staggering Vargas with a terrific left hook seconds before the end of the 10th, De La Hoya opened the 11th cautiously, behind his left jab, a tactic that caused Larry Merchant to remark, "Shouldn't De La Hoya be exploring the possibility that Vargas is still groggy from the previous round? Is he giving him a chance to recuperate?" Scarcely were the words out of Merchant's mouth when Oscar exploded the most spectacular left hook of his career on the right side of Vargas' jaw, thus giving Vargas a "chance to recuperate" -- all the way to the hospital. In the future let's hope Merchant will be a bit more cautious in second-guessing the tactics of great fighters.


Allen Barra

Allen Barra cowrote Marvin Miller's memoirs, A Whole Different Ballgame. His latest book is Mickey and Willie: The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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