I’ve fallen criminally behind in my reading in recent years. So much so that I’m just getting around to “Johnny U,” Tom Callahan’s elegant biography of Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas, and “Cobb,” Al Stump’s classic rendering of the life and times of baseball great Ty Cobb.
Needless to say, I was blown away – if you’ll pardon the expression – when I came across a common thread in Unitas’ and Cobb’s youths: They both were accidentally shot with firearms, and their careers easily could have been over before they’d even begun.
In Johnny U’s case, the affected body part was his right hand, the one with which he threw 290 NFL touchdown passes and led the Colts to three titles. The story goes like this: When Unitas was a high school junior in Pittsburgh, his widowed mother kept a loaded .380 automatic pistol on the living room mantle – a gift from a friend for protection against a prowler reported in the area.
One day, Callahan writes, Johnny removed the clip to clean the weapon, “forgot about the bullet in the chamber [and] … shot himself straight through the middle finger.” Amazingly, the mishap caused no lasting damage. In fact, not long afterward, in the first game of the season, he fired the ball 50 yards for a TD despite wearing a cumbersome splint.
A teammate’s explanation: “He had massive hands, you know. It would have blown my finger clean off.”
Cobb was only slightly younger (15) when, while working on his father’s farm in Royston, Ga., “he left his loaded .22 Winchester [rifle] leaning against a fence,” Stump recounts. “A tree branch sprung and a shot knocked him kicking. Tyrus was hit near the heart in the lower left shoulder.”
He was taken by train to Atlanta, 80 miles away, but doctors there – despite much painful probing – never did find the bullet. So they stitched and bandaged him and sent him on his way. According to Stump, “Tyrus carried the metal in his body for the rest of his life, complaining of a burning sensation on cold days.”
(Fortunately, it didn’t keep him from getting 4,189 major-league hits, becoming a charter member of the Baseball Hall of Fame or irritating just about everybody he crossed paths with.)
Johnny Unitas and Ty Cobb, two icons in their respective sports, and yet, in their teens, they were nearly disabled (Unitas) or dead (Cobb) because of misadventures with firearms. Who knew there was such a link between them?