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Johnny Unitas
Johnny Unitas with Baltimore Colts in 1970
Personal Information
Jersey #(s)
on May 7, 1933 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Height: 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)Weight: 194 lb (88 kg)
Died September 11, 2002(2002-09-11) (aged 69)
in Timonium, Maryland (age 69)
Career information
Year(s) 19561973
NFL Draft 1955 / Round: 9 / Pick: 102
College Louisville
Professional teams
*Offseason and/or practice squad member only
Career stats
Pass attempts/completions/Comp.Pct(%) 5,186/2,830/54.6
TD-INT 290 TDs -253 INTs
Passing yards/QB Rating 40,239 pass yards/81.2 rtg.
Stats at
Career highlights and awards

  • Super Bowl Champion (V) (1970)
  • 2× NFL World Champion (1958, 1959)
  • NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team
  • NFL 1960s All-Decade Team
  • 10× Pro Bowl selection (1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1963, 1964, 1966, 1967)
  • 6× First-team All-Pro selection (1957, 1958, 1959, 1964, 1965, 1967)
  • 1× Second-team All-Pro (1963)
  • 1× Second-team All-Conference (1970)
  • AP NFL MVP (1959, 1964, 1967)
  • UPI NFL MVP (1959, 1964, 1967)
  • NEA NFL MVP (1957, 1967)
  • Pro Bowl MVP (1959, 1960, 1963)
  • Bert Bell Award (1959, 1964, 1967)
  • 1970 NFL Man of the Year Award
  • Baltimore Colts #19 retired

John Constantine Unitas (born May 7, 1933 – September 11, 2002), known as Johnny Unitas or "Johnny U", and nicknamed "The Golden Arm", was a professional American football player in the 1950s through the 1970s, spending the majority of his career with the Baltimore Colts. He was a record-setting quarterback, and the National Football League's most valuable player in 1959, 1964 and 1967. His record of throwing a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games (between 1956–1960) remains unsurpassed as of 2011. He has been consistently listed as one of the greatest NFL players of all time.[1]

Early life

John Constantine Unitas was born to Lithuanian immigrant parents in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1933, and grew up in the Brookline neighborhood.[2] His father died when Johnny was four years old, and he was raised by his mother, who worked two jobs to support the family.[3] His unusual surname was a result of a phonetic transliteration of a common Lithuanian last name Jonaitis. Attending St Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played halfback and quarterback. After high school, Unitas looked for an opportunity to play college football. He was passed over by Notre Dame and Indiana.

The University of Louisville came through and Unitas left home for Kentucky.

College career

In his four-year career as a Louisville Cardinal, Unitas completed 245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns. It is recorded that the 6-foot-1 Johnny Unitas weighed 145 pounds on his first day of practice at the University of Louisville. Unitas' first start was in the fifth game of the 1951 season against St. Bonaventure. That game, the freshman threw 11 consecutive passes and three touchdowns to give the Cardinals a 21-19 lead. Though Louisville lost the game 22-21 on a disputed field goal, it had found a talented quarterback. Unitas completed 12 of 19 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns in a 35-28 victory over Houston. The team finished the season 5-5 — 4-1 with Unitas as the starting quarterback. As a freshman, Unitas completed 46 of 99 passes for 602 yards and nine touchdowns (44).

By the 1952 season, the university decided to de-emphasize sports. The new president at Louisville, Dr. Philip Grant Davidson, reduced the amount of athletic aid, and tightened academic standards for athletes. As a result, 15 returning players could not meet the new standards and lost their scholarships. But Unitas maintained his scholarship by taking on a new elective: square dancing. During his square dancing classes, he frequently danced with Helene Paschke. In 1952 Coach Camp switched the team to two-way football. Unitas not only played safety or linebacker on defense and quarterback on offense but returned kicks and punts on special teams. The Cards won their first game against Wayne State, and then Florida State in the second game. Unitas completed 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. It was said that Unitas put on such a show at the Florida State game that he threw a pass under his legs for 15 yards. The rest of the season was a struggle for the Cards, who finished 3-5. Unitas completed 106 of 198 passes for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns in his sophomore year.[4]

The team won their first game in 1953, against Murray State, and lost the rest for a record of 1-7. One of the most memorable games of the season came in a 59-6 loss against Tennessee. Unitas completed 9 of 19 passes for 73 yards, rushed 9 times for 52 yards, returned 6 kickoffs for eighty-five yards, 1 punt for three yards, and had 86 percent of the team's tackles. The only touchdown the team scored was in the fourth quarter when Unitas made a fake pitch to the running back and ran the ball 23 yards for a touchdown. Unitas was hurt later in the fourth quarter while trying to run the ball, and on his way off the field received a standing ovation. When he got to the locker room he was so worn that his jersey and shoulder pads had to be cut off because he could not lift his arms. Louisville ended the season with a 20-13 loss to Eastern Kentucky. In his junior year, Unitas completed 49 of 95 passes for 470 yards and three touchdowns.

Unitas was elected captain for the 1954 season, but due to an early injury did not see much playing time. His first start was the third game of the season, against Florida State. Of the 34-man team, 21 were freshmen. The 1954 Louisville Cardinals went 3-6, with the last win at home against Morehead State. Unitas was slowed by so many injuries his senior year his 527 passing yards ended second to Jim Houser's 560.

Professional career

Pittsburgh Steelers

After college, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL but was released before the season began as the odd man out among four quarterbacks trying to fill three spots. Steelers Head Coach Walt Kiesling had made up his mind about Unitas; he somehow thought him not smart enough to quarterback an NFL team.[5] The opposite would be true, as Unitas would become one of the greatest on-field leaders of all time, introducing the 2-minute offense to the NFL. Kiesling never even let Unitas take a snap in practice with the Steelers. Among those edging out Unitas was Ted Marchibroda, future NFL quarterback and longtime NFL head coach. Married with a child and out of pro football, Unitas worked in construction in Pittsburgh to support his family.[6] On the weekends, he played quarterback, safety and punter on a local semipro team called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game.[7]

Baltimore Colts

In 1956 Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts of the NFL under legendary coach Weeb Ewbank, after being asked at the last minute to join Bloomfield Rams lineman Jim Deglau, a Croatian steel worker with a life much like Unitas', at the latter's scheduled Colts tryout. The pair borrowed money from friends to pay for the gas to make the trip. Deglau later told a reporter after Unitas' death, "[His] uncle told him not to come. [He] was worried that if he came down and the Colts passed on him, it would look bad (to other NFL teams).".[8] The Colts signed Unitas, much to the chagrin of the Cleveland Browns, who had hoped to claim the rejected Steeler quarterback.[9]

When starting quarterback George Shaw suffered a broken leg against the Chicago Bears in the season's fourth game, Unitas made a nervous debut. His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then he botched a hand-off on his next play, a fumble recovered by the Bears. Unitas rebounded quickly from that 58–27 loss, leading the Colts to an upset of Green Bay and their first win over Cleveland. He threw nine touchdown passes that year, including one in the season finale that started his record 47-game streak. His 55.6-percent completion mark was a rookie record.

In 1957, his first season as the Colts full-time starter at quarterback, Unitas finished first in the NFL in passing yards (2,550) and touchdown passes (24) as he helped lead the Colts to a 7-5 record, the first winning record in franchise history. At season's end, Unitas was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA).

"Greatest Game Ever Played"

The Colts won the NFL championship under Unitas' leadership in 1958, by defeating the New York Giants 23–17 in sudden death overtime. It was the first overtime game in NFL history, and is often referred to as the "greatest game ever played". The game, nationally televised by NBC, has been credited for sparking the rise in popularity of professional football during the 1960s. In 1959, Unitas was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press (AP) and UPI for the first time, leading the NFL in passing yards (2,899), touchdown passes (32) and completions (193). Unitas then led the Colts to a repeat championship, beating the Giants again 31-16 in the title game.

First MVP in '59

In 1959 Unitas was voted the AP Player of the Year and also the UPI player of the Year. (See: National Football League Most Valuable Player Award) The AP Award was considered the MVP award, adopting that verbiage in 1961. The Associated Press had always called the pre-1961 'Players of the Year"' their MVP until 2008, when it was revealed to them that they had made certain errors in their listings, namely that Jim Brown was the 1958 MVP/Player of the Year rather than Gino Marchetti and that Unitas was the true winner in 1959, not Y.A. Tittle. Rather than correct the winners, the AP "disavowed" that the pre-1961 winners were indeed "MVPs" claiming that it was a different award. Nonetheless, UPI also voted Unitas the top player award and there is little doubt that through sports history "MVP" and "Player of the Year" are terms that are interchangeable.

The '50s become the '60s

As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, the Colts' fortunes (and win totals) declined. Injuries to key players such as Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore were a contributing factor to this.[10] Unitas' streak of 47 straight games with at least one touchdown pass ended against the Los Angeles Rams in week 11 of the 1960 season.[11] After three middle-of-the-pack seasons, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired Weeb Ewbank and replaced him with Don Shula, the then-youngest head coach in NFL history (33 years of age when he was hired). The Colts finished 8-6 in Shula's first season at the helm, good enough for only third place in the NFL's Western Conference but they did end the season on a strong note by winning their final three games.[10] The season was very successful for Unitas personally as he led the NFL in passing yards with a career-best total of 3,481 and also led in completions with 237.

Second MVP in '64

The 1964 season would see the Colts return to the top of the Western Conference. After dropping their season opener to the Vikings, the Colts ran off 10 straight victories to finish with a 12-2 record. The season was one of Unitas' best as he finished with 2,824 yards passing, a league-best 9.26 yards per pass attempt, 19 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the AP and UPI for a second time. However, the season would end on a disappointing note for the Colts as they were upset by the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, losing 27-0.

More postseason heartbreak would follow in 1965. The Colts and Packers finished in a tie for first place in the Western Conference and a one-game playoff was played in Green Bay to decide who would be the conference representative in the 1965 NFL Championship Game. The Colts lost in overtime 13-10 due in large part to a game-tying field goal by Don Chandler that many say was incorrectly ruled good. The season had been another fine one for Unitas, as he threw for 2,530 yards, 23 touchdowns and finished with a league-high 97.1 passer rating, but he was lost for the balance of the season due to a knee injury in a week 12 loss to the Bears. Backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo also suffered a season-ending injury the following week and it would be running back Tom Matte who filled in as the emergency QB for the regular-season finale and the playoff loss to the Packers.

Third MVP in '67

After once again finishing 2nd in the Western Conference in 1966, the Colts rebounded to finish 11-1-2 in 1967 tying the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL's best record. In winning his third MVP awards from the AP and UPI in 1967 (and his second from the NEA), Unitas had a league-high 58.5 completion percentage and passed for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns.[12] Once again the season ended in heartbreak for the Colts, as they were shut out of the newly instituted four team NFL playoff after losing the divisional tiebreaker to the Rams due to a 34-10 loss to them in the regular season finale.

Super Bowls

In the final game of the 1968 preseason, the muscles in Unitas' arm were torn when he was hit by a member of the Dallas Cowboys defense. Unitas wrote in his autobiography that he felt his arm was initially injured by the use of the "night ball" that the NFL was testing for better TV visibility during night games. He would spend most of the season sitting on the bench. But the Colts still marched to a league-best 13-1 record behind backup quarterback and ultimate 1968 NFL MVP Earl Morrall. Although he was injured through most of the season, Unitas came off the bench to play in Super Bowl III, the famous game wherein Joe Namath guaranteed a New York Jets win despite conventional wisdom. Unitas' insertion was a desperation move in an attempt to retrieve dominance of the NFL over the upstart AFL. Although the Colts finally won an NFL Championship in 1968, they lost the Super Bowl to the AFL Champion, New York Jets.

Unitas helped put together the Colts' only score, a touchdown late in the game. Despite not playing until the fourth quarter, Unitas still finished with more passing yards than the team's starter, Morrall. In 1970, Unitas led the Colts to Super Bowl V. He was knocked out of the game in the second quarter, after throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass (setting a then-Super Bowl record) that helped lift the team to victory. In 1971 Unitas brought the Colts to the AFC Championship, a 21-0 loss to Miami. He was involved in only one other head-to-head meeting with Namath after their 1970 regular season meeting (won by the Colts, 29-22, on a day when Namath's wrist was broken on the final play of the game). That last meeting was a memorable one. On September 24, 1972, at Memorial Stadium, Unitas threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns, but Namath upstaged him again, bombing the Colts for 496 yards and six touchdowns in a 44-34 Jets victory --- their first over Baltimore since the 1970 merger.[13][14]

San Diego, retirement, and records

One of the most memorable moments in football history came on Unitas's last game in a Colt uniform at Memorial Stadium in a game against Buffalo. Unitas was not starting the game, but the game was a blowout, and the Colts were leading 28-0 when Unitas came on due to the fans chanting "We want Unitas!!!" and a plan devised by the head coach to convince Unitas that the starting quarterback was injured. Unitas came onto the field and proceeded to throw his last pass as a Colt, which was a short pass that the receiver was able to turn into a long touchdown as Baltimore won 35-7.

Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973, and retired from football in 1974. He finished his 18 NFL seasons with 2,830 completions in 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, with 253 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns.

Unitas set many passing records during his career. He was the first quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards, despite playing during an era when NFL teams played shorter seasons of 12 or 14 games (as opposed to today's 16-game seasons). His 32 touchdown passes in 1959 were a record at the time, making Unitas the first QB to hit the 30 touchdown mark in a season. His 47-game touchdown streak between 1956 and 1960 is a record that still stands and is considered by many the football equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's 56-game baseball hitting streak.

Post-playing days

After his playing days were finished, Unitas settled in Baltimore where he raised his family while also pursuing a career in broadcasting, doing color commentary for NFL games on CBS in the 1970s. After Robert Irsay moved the Colts franchise to Indianapolis in 1984, a move reviled to this day in Baltimore as "Bob Irsay's Midnight Ride," Unitas was so outraged that he cut all ties to the relocated team (though his #19 jersey is still retired by the Colts). Other prominent old-time Colts followed his lead. He asked the Pro Football Hall of Fame on numerous occasions (including on Roy Firestone's Up Close) to remove his display unless it was listed as belonging to the Baltimore Colts. The Hall of Fame has never complied with the request. Unitas donated his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore; it is now on display in the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.

Johnny Unitas was inducted into the American Football Association's Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Unitas actively lobbied for another NFL team to come to Baltimore. After the NFL returned to Baltimore in 1996 as the Ravens Unitas and most of the other old-time Colts regarded the Ravens as the true successors to the Baltimore Colts. Unitas was frequently seen on the Ravens' sidelines at home games (most prominently in 1998 when the now-Indianapolis Colts played the Ravens) and received a thunderous ovation every time he was pictured on each of the huge widescreens at M&T Bank Stadium. He was often seen on the 30 yard line on the Ravens side. When the NFL celebrated its first 50 years, Unitas was voted the league's best player. Retired Bears quarterback Sid Luckman said of Unitas, "He was better than me. Better than (Sammy) Baugh. Better than anyone."

Unitas lived most of the final years of his life severely hobbled. Due to an elbow injury suffered during his playing career, he was unable to use his right hand, and could not perform any physical activity more strenuous than golf due to his artificial knees.[15]

Personal life

At the age of 21, Unitas was married by his uncle to his high school sweetheart Dorothy Hoelle on November 20, 1954; they had five children before divorcing. Unitas's second wife was Sandra Lemon, whom he married on June 26, 1972; they had three children and remained married until Unitas's death on September 11, 2002.


On September 11, 2002, Unitas died suddenly of a heart attack while working out at the Kernan Physical Therapy Center in Timonium, Maryland. After his death, many fans of the Baltimore Ravens football team petitioned the renaming of the Ravens' home stadium (owned by the State of Maryland) after Unitas. These requests, however, were unsuccessful since the lucrative naming rights had already been leased by the Ravens to Buffalo, New York M&T Bank. However, a statue of Unitas was erected as the centerpiece of the plaza in front of the Stadium named in Unitas' honor. Large banners depicting the NFL Hall of Famer in his Baltimore Colts heyday flank the entrance to the stadium. Towson University, where Unitas was a major fund-raiser and which his children attended, named its football and lacrosse complex Johnny Unitas Stadium in recognition of both his football career and service to the University.[16]

Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players suffered during their careers before heavy padding and other safety features became popular. Unitas himself lost almost total use of his right hand, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably disfigured from being repeatedly broken during games.[17]

He is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland.

File:Johnny Unitas grave.jpg

The grave site of Johnny Unitas, Timonium, Maryland.


  • Unitas held the record for most Pro Bowl appearances (10) by a quarterback until Brett Favre broke his record in 2009.
  • Unitas set the original standard for most wins as a starting quarterback with 118 regular season victories (since surpassed by Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady).
  • Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
  • 1987 American Football Association Semi Pro Hall of Fame
  • Johnny Unitas' #16 is the only number retired by the football program at the University of Louisville.
  • Unitas Tower, a dormitory at the University of Louisville, is named for Johnny Unitas.
  • A statue of Johnny Unitas sits in the north end zone of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium at the University of Louisville. It is tradition for each Cardinal player to touch the statue as he enters the field.
  • Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award has been awarded to the top senior quarterback of the current year in college football. The award is presented annually in Louisville.
  • In 1999, he was ranked No. 5 on "The Sporting News'" list of the The Sporting News - Football's 100 Greatest Players|100 Greatest Football Players,[18] behind only Joe Montana among quarterbacks.
  • In 2004, The Sporting News ranked Unitas No. 1 among the NFL's 50 Greatest Quarterbacks, with Joe Montana No. 2.
  • In 1999, ESPN's Sportscentury: 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century ranked Unitas #32
  • Just before his death, Johnny Unitas became the community liaison for athletics in Towson, Maryland. The football stadium at Towson University was renamed Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2002. Unitas died less than a week after throwing his last pass in the grand opening of the stadium.
  • Set the record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass at 47 games.[19] This remains unsurpassed as of 2011.[20]
  • Set the record for consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes at 12 games. This record was surpassed by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers with 13.
  • Unitas' grandson, J.C. Unitas, was a junior quarterback at Villanova University. He currently attends the University of Tampa.
  • Tied with Kurt Warner for most consecutive games with at least a 120 passer rating (4)

Popular culture

  • Appeared as a color-commentator in the 1976 Disney film Gus.
  • He guest-starred as himself in The Simpsons episode "Homie the Clown" (first aired February 12, 1995). In the episode "Mother Simpson" (first aired November 19, 1995), Grandpa Simpson also refers to Unitas having a "haircut you could set your watch to." Both episodes are directed by David Silverman.
  • In 1999, Unitas was an extra in Runaway Bride. He can be seen about 25 minutes into the movie sitting on the bench outside the bakery.
  • In 1999, Unitas was featured in the movie Any Given Sunday as the head coach of the fictional Dallas Knights.
  • For the game following his death, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning requested to wear a pair of black cleats as a tribute to Johnny's signature black boots. The league denied his request and threatened Manning with a $25,000 fine. Manning decided not to wear them. Ravens QB Chris Redman, a Louisville alum like Unitas, wore the cleats without asking permission and was fined only $5000.[21]
  • Stephen Decatur High School named its student commons Johnny Unitas Square.
  • In the episode "Space, Geeks, and Johnny Unitas" from Season 1 of The Adventures of Pete and Pete, Pete became obsessed with Unitas.
  • Though Unitas never served in the military, Mort Walker gave him an unseen cameo in the comic strip "Beetle Bailey". Beetle asks an intruder, "Who goes there?" When he gets the response "Johnny Unitas", Beetle yells back "Pass"—and is promptly hit in the helmet with a football. (April 30, 1971.)


  1. Playoffs raise historical stakes. Retrieved on 2010-01-19.
  2. The Best Game Ever,Mark Bowden (2008). The Best Game Ever. Atlantic Monthly Press. ISBN 087113988X.
  3. "Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas dead at 69", Retrieved on 2009-08-05. 
  4. [1]
  5. Dan Rooney: My 75 years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL, ISBN 0-306-81569-9; p. 62.
  6. MacCambridge, 2005 pg. 124
  7. Cavanaugh, 2008 pg. 166
  8. Youngster's drive couldn't be sacked. (2002-10-20). Retrieved on 2009-08-05.
  9. Unitas set the QB gold standard. (2002-09-17). Retrieved on 2009-08-05.
  10. 10.0 10.1
  12. Unitas surprised them all. ESPN Classic. Retrieved on 2009-08-05.
  15. Nack, William. The Wrecking Yard, Sports Illustrated, May 7, 2001, accessed November 23, 2010.
  17. "Video", CNN, 2001-05-07. 
  18. Football's 100 Greatest Players. Retrieved on 2009-08-05.
  19. Joyce, C. Alan (2007-01-05). "Unbreakable" Sports Records. The World Almanac. Retrieved on 2009-08-05.
  20. Kaberon, Eli (2011-10-08). Brees streaking up all-time list for touchdown passes. Pro Football Weekly. Retrieved on 2011-10-13.
  21. Cory Tinsley. dress code, policies on commemoration, can be ridiculous. Indiana Statesman, September 18, 2002.


  • Bolus, Jim, and Billy Reed. Cardinal Football. Champaign, IL: Sports Pub Inc., 1999.
  • Callahan, Tom. Johnny U: the life and times of John Unitas. New York: Crown Publishers, 2006.
  • Lazenby, Roland. Johnny Unitas: the best there ever was. Chicago: Triumph Books, 2002.
  • Schaap, Dick (1999). "Johnny Unitas: Sunday's Best". In ESPN SportsCentury. Michael MacCambridge, Editor. New York: ESPN-Hyperion Books. pp. 154–65.
  • Cavanaugh, Jack (2008), Giants Among Men. New York:Random House. eISBN ISBN 978-1-58836-697-9
  • MacCambridge, Michael (2005), America's Game. New York:Anchor Books. eISBN ISBN 978-0-307-48143-6

External links