- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 15, 2002

R.I.P., Johnny U.

Three things about Johnny Unitas that got left out of the obituaries:
1. Growing up in Beaver Falls, Pa., Joe Namath idolized Unitas so much so that friends called him "Joey U." Namath wore Johnny's No. 19 jersey for home games, but had to settle for No.29 on the road because there was no 19.
2. Colts coach Weeb Ewbank, a former Cleveland assistant, brought Otto Graham to training camp to work with the young Unitas. "Otto liked the flat stuff [that is, throwing swing passes and dump-offs to his running backs]," Ordell Braase once said, "but I'm sure John would say he learned something from Otto."
3. Before his first NFL camp with Pittsburgh in 1955, Unitas used to drive to quarterback meetings with Steelers QB Jim Finks the same Jim Finks who's now in the Hall of Fame for his general managing exploits. (Finks, the veteran, was the one who had a car.)
"Frankly," Finks says in Ray Didinger's book, "Pittsburgh Steelers," "he did not look like that great a prospect. From the day Ted Marchibroda came out of the service and Vic Eaton proved he could play defensive back, I knew Johnny was gone [because, among other things, he wasn't versatile enough to play DB]. At times you could see he had a live arm, but when it came to calling plays and reacting under pressure, John did not look that good. I wasn't shocked when he got cut.
"At the time we were using the Clark Shaughnessy [offensive] system, which was very difficult for a young quarterback to pick up. It would have overwhelmed any rookie, particularly someone like John. He played his college football at Louisville, where he probably had to memorize three running plays and three pass plays. Consequently, he tended to be hesitant calling his plays. That overshadowed the natural talent he had."

Unitas' last great game, as it turned out, was against Namath. In Week 2 of the '72 season, he and Joe Willie combined for 872 passing yards (Namath 496, Unitas 376), a record at the time, as the Jets beat the Colts, 44-34. Johnny, then 39, played in only 10 more NFL games and didn't throw for more than 215 yards in any of them.

Memo to Peyton Manning: If the NFL won't let you wear black hightops today in memory of Unitas maybe you should swing by the barber shop on the way to the game and get a brush cut.

Kurt Warner, of course, already has one.

To think I was worried that the Redskins' new "ball coach" wouldn't let Stephen Davis be Stephen Davis. Not only is Steve Spurrier letting Stephen be Stephen, he's letting him be Larry Centers, too.

Quote of the Week: "I had a cold last week, and I was going to go take Tylenol cold medicine, but we were warned that you can't even take that now because it may have some sort of ephedrine for a runny nose." Falcons linebacker Matt Stewart on the perils of NFL drug testing (from the Atlanta Journal and Constitution).

The Arizona Cardinals, you'll be pleased to know, have signed first-pick Wendell Bryant just in time for the 2003 season.

Did you see Lou Holtz has been invited to join Augusta National? It was probably on his celebrated list of 107 Things to Do Before I Die right before "cross a picket line of angry women's rights advocates."

Heisman voters sure can pick 'em, can't they? Eric Crouch, last year's winner, just "retired" from the Rams without playing a single NFL game, and Chris Weinke, the previous recipient, is currently riding the bench in Carolina behind Rodney Peete.

Trivia question: Crouch is only the sixth Heisman winner since World War II who hasn't had an NFL career (assuming, that is, he doesn't change his mind). Who are the others? (Answer later in column.)

Worth a look: Rich Tandler's recently published book, "The Redskins from A to Z, Volume 1: The Games" ($19.95, Walking Encyclopedia Publications). If you're a history buff like me, you'll find plenty to enjoy in this game-by-game history of the franchise (beginning in 1937 when the Redskins moved to Washington). There are scoring summaries, brief accounts of the action and lots of useful minutiae to spring on your friends.
For instance: Did you know that when Bobby Mitchell, then with the Browns, rushed for 232 yards against the Redskins in 1959 five yards shy of the league record Washington's Johnny Olszewski nearly matched him by gaining 190 (177 in the first half alone)?
The book also makes you appreciate the greatness of Cliff Battles. One afternoon against Pittsburgh in '37, the Redskins' first championship season, Battles scored three touchdowns of 60 yards or longer on a 65-yard interception return and runs of 60 and 71. Later that year, in a game at New York that decided the Eastern Division title, he had TDs of 75 and 80 yards in a 49-14 rout. (And Washington hung those 49 points, by the way, on a defense that had allowed just 60 in its other 10 games.)
Tandler's opus is available only through mail order at the author's Web site, www.redskinsatoz.com.

The Brits must be thrilled that the PGA Tour now counts Opens won before '95 as official victories. This puts golf's oldest championship on a par with the John Deere Classic, the Buick Challenge and the International.

It's good to know the British Open is no longer lumped with the Skins Game.

And how about Sam Snead, huh? I mean, I knew the guy was an amazing golfer, but who thought he'd be adding to his win total even after he was dead?

News item: Professional boxers must submit to steroid testing before each fight in New York and must receive annual MRI brain scans, the state athletic commission announces.
: Oh, great. Now they're requiring boxers to have brains. It'll be the death of the sport.

Answer to trivia question: Doc Blanchard (Army, 1945), Dick Kazmaier (Princeton, 1951), Pete Dawkins (Army, 1958), Ernie Davis (Syracuse, 1961) and Charlie Ward (Florida State, 1993) are the other Heisman winners since '45 who didn't play in the NFL.

Ten Hall of Famers who struck out fewer times in their major-league careers than the Brewers' Jose Hernandez has in the last two seasons (366 and counting through Friday):
Joe Sewell, 1920-33: 114 strikeouts in 7,132 at bats. Lifetime average: .312.
Lloyd Waner, 1927-42, '44-45: 173 strikeouts in 7,772 at bats. Lifetime average: .316.
Nellie Fox, 1947-65: 216 strikeouts in 9,232 at bats. Lifetime average: .288.
Mickey Cochrane, 1925-37: 217 strikeouts in 5,169 at bats. Lifetime average: .320.
Frankie Frisch, 1919-37: 272 strikeouts in 9,112 at bats. Lifetime average: .316.
Sam Rice, 1915-34: 275 strikeouts in 9,269 at bats. Lifetime average: .320.
Pie Traynor, 1920-35, '37: 278 in 7,559 at bats. Lifetime average: .320.
Earl Combs, 1924-35: 278 in 5,748 at bats. Lifetime average: .325.
Bill Dickey, 1928-43, '46: 289 in 6,300 at bats. Lifetime average: .313.
George Sisler, 1915-22, '24-30: 327 in 8,267 at bats. Lifetime average. .340.

Another name that will soon be added to the list: Joe DiMaggio (369 strikeouts in 6,821 at bats, .325 lifetime average).

Does anyone else find it strange that three of the 10 hit exactly .320 for their careers (and two others hit exactly .316)?

Strikeout avoidance appears to be genetic. Luke Sewell, Joe's brother, whiffed only 307 times in 5,383 big-league at bats. And Paul Waner, Lloyd's sibling, went down swinging only 376 times in 9,459 at bats (while winning three batting titles and compiling a .333 average).

I'm not positive about his, but I'm pretty sure a record was set in sports last week for criminal charges dropped against athletes (e.g. Allen Iverson, Darrell Russell, the Broncos' Dwayne Carswell).

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if there were more dropped charges during the week than dropped passes or dropped third strikes.

And finally, I fully expect Bison Dele to resurface someday with Amelia Earhart on his arm.

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