- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 14, 2002

Despite the assertion of the metaphysicians, "eras" can be imposed on the ragged trajectory of human affairs, as in the death at 69 on Wednesday of Johnny U. Johnny Who? Ah, if you don't instantly make the connection with John Constantine Unitas, the nonpareil quarterback, No. 19, of the Baltimore Colts in their shining years, then you cannot claim credentials of the sports era he dominated, quotidian as it may be in the larger scheme of things.
Unitas was emblematic of the years in the 1950s and early 1960s when the National Football League evolved into the spectacle it has become. The Washington Times' Thom Loverro put it nicely: "In the NFL, Johnny Unitas was royalty. There have been many great quarterbacks in the NFL, but none carried the sort of aura of blue-collar Sunday toughness and excellence that Unitas did."
He set a bushel of records on the field, most of which have been eclipsed in these glitzy years of over-coached and over-specialized football. One that endures, and like Joe DiMaggio's 56-game baseball hitting streak is reckoned as unlikely to be exceeded, is that he tossed touchdown passes in 47 consecutive games. He was voted into the NFL Hall of Fame, of course, and is perhaps most vivid in the memory of graying fans as leading the Colts to the 1958 league championship victory over the New York Giants in overtime called "the greatest game ever played." Unitas played from 1956 through 1973, all but the last year for Baltimore. The Colts traded the legendary Johnny U. to San Diego, an undignified and dispiriting conclusion, for Unitas and those who admired indeed, revered him. It shouldn't have ended that way. But that could not diminish the player or the man, unflappable and disciplined on the field and dignified off of it a description not routinely made of multi-million-dollared pro footballers today.
Unitas came to embody, too, an image of the place he labored. Baltimore is one of those cities that often "don't get no respect" perhaps truer in the five decades ago than now. The Colts' quarterback and his supporting cast those names of footballian renown, Alan Ameche, Lenny Moore, Ray Berry, Gino Marchetti, Buzz Nutter, Ordell Braase, Jim Parker, John Mackey and on and on provided a locus of pride at old Memorial Stadium. "He made Sundays so special," wrote a Baltimore Sun columnist in his elegy, and gave the city a sense of itself that transcended football. That was why that newspaper bannered the death of Johnny Unitas across the front page.
The image will remain for those who watched him over the years wearing the old high-top shoes that he always favored, pulling away from center in his herky-jerky fall back and spotting a receiver open downfield and, so often for so long, laying the ball into his arms. There were giants in the earth in those days.


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