Faith Made Johnny Unitas the Best There Ever Was

It was a moniker that seemed designed by a Hollywood scriptwriter. Yet, as if it were his destiny, he could not have been more worthy of this most auspicious appellation.

While Cardinal William Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, officiated at his funeral at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on Sept. 17, a plane flew overhead carrying a red-lettered banner reading “Unitas We Stand.” Twenty-two hundred people packed the church, some arriving as early as 4 a.m. to pay tribute to a man who, in the cardinal's words, “led and touched others by his integrity and loyalty.” Frank Gitschier, Unitas’ former coach at the University of Louisville, was the first to speak. He referred to his hero as “the most accessible legend I've ever heard of,” a man who “always had his priorities right: God, family and job.” Journalists Brian Anderson and Peter Reinharz praised him as “a devout and temperate Catholic who lived [with his family] in the Baltimore suburbs — the very model of civility and respectability.”

Unitas left behind his wife, two daughters and six sons, who served as pallbearers.

The words of William Wordsworth provide a fitting epitaph to the life and legend that is Johnny Unitas: One in whom persuasion and belief had ripened into faith, and faith became a passionate intuition.

Unitas was born May 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh. His father died when Johnny was 5 and his mother raised her four children by herself, supporting them by working two jobs.

At St. Justin's, a small Catholic high school, Unitas played two positions, halfback and end, until he replaced the injured starting quarterback early in his junior year. It was during his high school years that Unitas accidentally shot himself in the finger while cleaning a .38 revolver. The mishap left him unable to bend the first joint of the index finger of this throwing hand. Nonetheless, his gridiron performance in his senior year drew some attention from colleges.

Unitas wanted to play football for Notre Dame. Another Lithuanian, like himself, Moose Krause (Edward Kraucianas) had become a legend at that school, earning All-America honors both in basketball and football. Notre Dame passed on the aspiring quarterback, believing that Unitas, at 139 pounds, was too light. Other schools ignored him. The University of Pittsburgh offered him a scholarship, but Unitas failed the school's entrance exam.

Frank Gitschier, the University of Louisville coach, took an interest in Unitas. After he promised Unitas’ mother that her son would go to Mass every Sunday and would graduate, she agreed to let him attend Louisville. “It was no great recruiting coup,” Gitschier later confessed, “we got Johnny U. because no one else wanted him.”

The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Unitas in the ninth round in 1955. He played none of the team's five exhibition games and was released without even throwing a single pass. An Associated Press photograph of Unitas appeared in newspapers across the country. It did not show him taking a snap from center, however, but explaining how to hold a football to a Chinese nun.

The next step for the ever-faithful Mr. Unitas was playing for a semipro team in Pittsburgh for $6 a game. At this point, his prospects for a career in football looked rather bleak. In addition, Unitas did not look at all like a football player. Noted sports journalist Frank Deford has described Unitas in rather unflattering terms: “He had stooped shoulders, a chicken breast, thin bowed legs and long, dangling arms with crooked, mangled fingers.”

Weeb Ewbank, the head coach of the Baltimore Colts, however, saw something he liked about this gawky young quarterback and signed him to a contract. By this time, Unitas had 190 pounds on his 6-foot, 1-inch frame.

Unitas’ debut was a shaky one.

His first pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. He botched a handoff on his next play, resulting in a fumble recovered by the opposition.

Legends are made of sterner stuff. There had been enough setbacks and deterrents in Unitas’ life up to this point to induce him to abandon his dream and try a different career track. Yet, despite the discouragements, his faith was still ripening. He threw nine touchdowns in his rookie year, including one in the season finale that started his record 47-game streak. His 55.6% completion mark was a rookie record. The next season he threw for 2,550 yards and 24 touchdowns and was named Most Valuable Player.

His career spanned 18 years. He set 22 NFL passing records, was named Most Valuable Player of the NFL three times and was named to the Pro Bowl 10 times. He became a legend. Sports Illustrated declared on the basis of meticulous statistical reckoning that Johnny Unitas was “The Best There Ever Was” (Sept. 23).

He was a legend in football. Only a legend! In life he seemed larger than legend. His faith was indeed passionate and fully vindicated. The man with the “golden arm” had a warm and gracious heart. “Johnny U's talents were his own,” wrote Deford. “The belief he gave us was his gift.”

Dr. Donald DeMarco is adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut.