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The Best There Was
In the annals of sports, whether in basketball, baseball or otherwise, there are those who are revered by their peers and sportswriters for generations, who present one individual as the greatest. In pro football, it’s only fitting that we look back now on the current NFL season at a man many consider to be “the best.” In NFL history, even by today’s standards, there is one man alone to exemplify how sportsmanship, true grit, and determination rose despite overwhelming odds to stand as the best quarterback ever for eighteen years. ever played, ruled. There are many people who will categorically state that Johnny Unitas was the best. Even today, there are those who feel that Johnny Wu could command any team, read the sophisticated defensive books of today, and literally take the entire game to a new level of excitement, skill and daring.
Johnny Unitas has risen to the highest level of footballers with his signature slicked back haircut. Few sports stories are more dramatic or complete than that of Johnny Unitas. He was, after all, a ninth-round draft pick for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. Although Unitas was cut before he even threw a pass in a game, he still decided to play. During the year, Unitas replaced its construction work with a semi-professional football game for $6 per game. Back then, players were challenged to play what is commonly known as Iron Man football. This means playing both defensive and attacking positions. Johnny Unitas was excellent at everything. However, it was his passing ability that eventually caught the eye of other scouts.
It was after the 1955 season that Baltimore Colts head coach Wib Ewbank learned of the “outstanding prospect” on the sands of Pittsburgh. Ewbank signed Johnny for $17,000 on a team basis. Strictly programmed as a backup, Unitas got a chance in the fourth game when the Colts’ starter was injured. And they say the rest is history! Over the next 18 seasons, “Johnny W” compiled a record of winning exploits by which all other quarterbacks are measured. Many of his accomplishments have remained unchanged for more than fifty years. In the entire history of the NFL, there has never been another like Johnny W. Of course, there were others like Bart Starr, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Tom Brady. However, it was Johnny Unitas who put the NFL on the map and in the minds of the nations.
Undoubtedly, it was his final touchdown in the 1958 NFL title game, often referred to as “the greatest game ever played,” that made Unitas a household name and the legend began. The biggest game between the Colts and the Giants played in front of a nationally televised audience allowed Unitas to display all of his amazing qualities, confidence, courage, leadership, genius playmaking and passing skills without calling the playbook. by today’s coaches. Just think of Johnny Unitas as a quarterback today. He once told Weeb Ewbank to sit back and relax and enjoy the game. The confidence and determination displayed under extreme pressure in a collision sport like football in the NFL only showcased the true talents of Johnny Unitas.
As in every age of professional sports it is a way to slow down the ability of the once greats and by 1974 Johnny Unitas was forced to leave the game that had simply brought him into the living rooms of the nations. A household name that every aspiring football player, especially young quarterbacks, would all strive to emulate. He always bounced back from injuries that became Unitas’ trademark. A typical incident occurred in 1958, when he led Baltimore to the Western Conference title, was hit by the Packers’ Johnny Symank in the sixth game and was hospitalized with three broken ribs and a punctured lung. Four games later, he led the Colts from a 27-7 halftime deficit to a 35-27 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, the most notable performance of the season.
Unitas can be underestimated as a young player, but he has always been a strong and confident leader. “Everything I do,” he said, “I always have a reason.” Even late in that championship game, he refused Evbank’s instructions to keep the ball on the ground. “We don’t want it to end here,” the coach said during a timeout. Two plays later, inside the 10, Unitas passed to Jim Mutcheller for one. Asked about the risk of an interception, Unitas said, “If I saw the risk of it, I would have thrown the ball out of bounds. You don’t get intercepted when you know what you’re doing.” Unitas threw for 32 touchdowns in 1959 and the Colts again defeated the Giants in the title game. In the 31-16 victory, Unitas ran for 264 yards and two scores.
He had 3,481 passing yards in the NFL in 1963. The next season he was the MVP of the league when he led the Colts to the best record in the NFL at 12-2 and was the first passer per yard (9.26). While winning another MVP in 1967, he passed for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns during the Colts’ 11-1-2 season, completing a league-high 58.5 percent. After missing most of the 1968 season, Unitas returned and led the Colts to their only scoring drive in Super Bowl III history, a 16-7 victory over the New York Jets. Two years later, in the Colts’ 16-13 victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V, he threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to John McKee before getting hurt late in the first half.
The constant injuries finally caught up with him, and in 1972 the Colts, under new coach Don Shula, were forced to field Unitas. The following January, he was traded to the San Diego Chargers, for whom he played just one season before retiring. In his 18-year career, Unitas passed for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns in 211 games. What made Unitas special, Berry said, was “his uncanny instinct for calling the right play at the right time, his icy composure under fire, his fierce competition and his complete disregard for his own safety.” On September 11, 2002, as the rest of the nation was remembering a national tragedy, Unitas was exercising at a physical therapy center in the Baltimore suburb of Timonium when he suffered a fatal stroke and passed quietly into history. He was 69 years old. The best was there, now it is not
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