- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, who used the strength in his right arm and the courage in his heart to become possibly the greatest passer in NFL history, died yesterday of a heart attack in Baltimore. He was 69.
Baltimore Ravens spokesman Chad Steele said no details were immediately available, but ESPN reported that Unitas died of a heart attack while working out with his therapist. He had emergency triple-bypass surgery in March 1993 after a heart attack.
Unitas, who led the Baltimore Colts to three NFL titles during an 18-year career from 1956 to 1973, was the first of the great modern passers, succeeding such illustrious predecessors as Sammy Baugh of the Washington Redskins, Sid Luckman of the Chicago Bears and Bob Waterfield of the Cleveland/Los Angeles Rams.
Moreover, the 6-foot-1, 195-pound Unitas was Everyman in an era when professional athletic stars were becoming hulking colossi who seemed unapproachable to their fans. His trademarks were a crew cut, black hightop cleats and the two or three darting little steps he used while retreating into the pocket to fire his deadly strikes. And his unlikely rise to stardom made him even more appealing to the man in the street.
Unitas, a college star at Louisville, was picked in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers and cut during training camp, to the everlasting embarrassment of owner Art Rooney and coach Walt Kiesling. At the time, he was so little known that the Pittsburgh Press identified him in a brief news story as "Jack" Unitas.
Inexplicably, the Steelers never played Unitas in a preseason game because they thought he lacked the smarts to be a pro quarterback. Competing for the third-string job behind Jim Finks and Ted Marchibroda, he was beaten out by a guy named Vic Eaton who also could punt, return punts and play defensive back skills that Unitas lacked.
Unitas hitchhiked back to his Pittsburgh home and played semipro ball for $6 a game in Bloomington, Pa. The Colts signed him the following year "after we received a letter from a fan saying there was a player in Bloomington we should look at," then-Colts coach Weeb Ewbank said. "I always accused Johnny of writing it."
Unitas got his chance to start in the fourth game of 1956 after No.1 quarterback George Shaw sustained a broken leg. He responded by throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown and fumbling on Baltimore's next two possessions. But the Colts had to stick with him because their only other QB had quit to attend law school. In the next two games, Unitas led the Colts to victories over the Green Bay Packers and the Cleveland Browns, and the job was his to keep.
Unitas threw 25 touchdown passes that season, including scores in the final three games. That began his incredible streak of tossing TDs in 47 consecutive games over parts of five seasons; no one else in NFL history has come closer than 30.
After years as an also-ran, the Colts broke through to their first Western Conference title in 1958 and met the New York Giants in what is commonly called "the greatest game ever played." The Colts won 23-17 in the NFL's first sudden-death finish when fullback Alan Ameche bucked one yard for a touchdown, but Unitas' passing made it possible.
Baltimore's final 80-yard drive displayed all of Unitas' talent and courage. On second-and-goal from the Giants' 6-yard line, he refused to let Steve Myhra kick an almost certain 13-yard field goal and threw a pass in the right flat to tight end Jim Mutscheller at the 1. Putting the ball in the air might have seemed a foolish thing to do for anybody but Unitas, that is.
When a sportswriter suggested after the game that the pass could have been intercepted and returned down the sideline for a game-winning Giants touchdown, Unitas replied with typical candor, "When you know what you're doing, they're not intercepted."
Nobody was more impressed by Unitas than Sam Huff, the Giants' All-Pro middle linebacker that day. Said old No.70: "I thought something had to be wrong either Unitas was a mind reader or we were tipping our defenses. Everything I called he beat with a play or a check-off. I played against him many times and left football realizing how much respect I had for him."
Unitas led the Colts to another NFL championship in 1959. In 1968, an injury to his right hand kept him on the sideline all season until he relieved Earl Morrall in the fourth quarter of Baltimore's shocking loss to Joe Namath's New York Jets in Super Bowl III. The Colts won the Super Bowl by beating Dallas the following year, but Unitas played only sparingly.
Unitas retired after playing a final, futile season for San Diego in 1973. Seeing Johnny U. in a gaudy Chargers uniform was like watching Joe DiMaggio playing for the Dodgers, one columnist wrote.
When he hung up his hightops, Unitas held 22 NFL records, including those for most passes attempted (5,186) and completed (2,830), most yardage (40,239) and touchdowns (290). Although most of his marks were erased by Dan Marino in the 1980s and '90s, Unitas holds the distinction of being the league's MVP twice, playing in 10 Pro Bowls and being selected as the quarterback of the NFL's all-time team in 2000. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1979.

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