5 Things You Didn't Know About Johnny Unitas

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The NFL preseason's in full swing, but instead of handicapping battles for backup QB jobs, let's take a look at five things you might not know about one of the greatest signal callers of all time: Johnny Unitas.

1. He Could Go Both Ways

When Unitas was a high school senior from Pittsburgh, nobody could really see that the halfback/quarterback combo would one day become an NFL legend. Notre Dame took one look at his six-foot, 138-pound build and decided against giving him a scholarship, so the son of Lithuanian immigrants ended up at the University of Louisville.

Unitas' collegiate career at Louisville, which wasn't even part of the NCAA at the time, largely consisted of him playing very well on mediocre-to-bad teams. During the 1952 season, however, the sophomore was all over the field. The team decided that its players would play both defense and offense, so in addition to playing QB, Unitas also served as a linebacker, safety, and return man. By all accounts the nimble Unitas was pretty tough as a safety, but his team slumped to a 3-5 record, including a humiliating 59-6 blowout at Tennessee.

2. He Could Have Been a Steeler

Although Unitas enjoyed a solid college career, injuries nagged him his senior year and hurt his pro prospects. When the 1955 NFL Draft rolled around, the Pittsburgh Steelers eventually took Unitas with the 102nd pick, all the way down in the ninth round.

The Steelers already had three quarterbacks on the roster, though, and the team really only planned to carry three QBs throughout the season. The Steelers' coaching staff didn't give Unitas much of a chance to show his stuff, either. Art Rooney, Jr., part of the legendary family of Steelers owners, later said, "The coaches would run the quarterbacks through drills, and sometimes the whistle would blow before John even got a turn."

The Steelers ended up cutting Unitas after the last game of the 1955 preseason. The man they felt was a better fit for the third QB job, Ted Marchibroda, only started 11 games his entire NFL career, all of them in the Steelers' dismal 4-7 1956 season.

3. He Didn't Give Up, Though

unitasAfter the Steelers cut Unitas, things must have looked pretty grim for him. He had a wife and children, and he needed to make some cash to support them. Unitas took construction and steel work jobs around Pittsburgh to make ends meet while also playing QB for a local semipro team, the Bloomfield Rams. The Rams were quite literally a sandlot team; they had to sprinkle oil or water on the field to keep it from getting too dusty since there was no grass. For the whopping paycheck of $3 per game, Unitas also played safety and handled the team's punting duties while wearing a decidedly un-QB-like number 45 jersey.

Unitas was right to hang with it in the sticks for a season, though. In February of 1956, the Baltimore Colts asked Unitas and his Bloomfield teammate Jim Deglau, a lineman, to come to Baltimore for a workout. Although Unitas was cash-strapped and worried that a failed audition in Baltimore would effectively end his football career, he and Deglau borrowed gas money and hit the road.

Unitas, of course, played like Johnny Unitas in his audition. The Colts shelled out a whopping $7,000 to sign Unitas as their backup QB for the 1956 season.

4. He Wasn't Quite a Natural, Though

Unitas began the 1956 season on the bench behind starter George Shaw, but that arrangement didn't last long. Shaw broke his leg during the Colts' fourth game, and Unitas found himself thrust into the spotlight against a very good Bears team.

Baltimore fans couldn't have liked what they saw in the early going. Unitas' first pass found its way into the hands of the Bears' J.C. Caroline, who ran the pick back for a touchdown. The jitters didn't calm down after this first play, either. On the next play from scrimmage Unitas ran into running back Alan Ameche during a bungled handoff and fumbled the ball back to the Bears. The Bears marched down the field for a score, just as they did when Unitas botched and fumbled a second handoff later in the game.

When the smoke cleared, Unitas' NFL debut ended in a 57-28 rout. It wasn't a total catastrophe, though; Unitas got his first NFL TD pass with a 36-yard strike to frequent target Jim Mutscheller.

5. He Didn't Lack Confidence

Unitas1958Unitas' first major triumph was leading the Colts to victory in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, which would later become known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and is sometimes credited for propelling the NFL to greater national popularity. The score was tied at 17 at the end of regulation, which led to a sudden death OT.

Although Baltimore didn't start with the ball in OT, the Colts' defense forced a punt to put the ball in Unitas' hands. Unitas marched 80 yards down the field while calling all of his own plays, and Ameche punched the ball into the end zone with a one-yard run to win the championship.

The signature play of the drive was a long pass down the sideline from Unitas to his main receiving weapon, Hall of Famer Raymond Berry. After the game, reporters asked Unitas if making that kind of throw in a sudden death game was sort of dangerous. After giving it some thought, Unitas responded, "Nothing's dangerous if you know what you're doing."

'5 Things You Didn't Know About...' appears every Friday. Read the previous installments here.

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August 21, 2009 - 9:05am
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