I love reading about football, football history, and great players of the past, so I very much enjoyed this biography of John Unitas (1933-2002), one of the best quarterbacks in professional football history.
First a little bit about Johnny U. Unitas grew up in a hard scrabble environment in Pittsburgh. His father died when he was five and his mother and older brother worked hard to keep the family intact. Unitas was a bit light for a football player but was the starting quarterback for his high school. His dream was to play for Notre Dame but he couldn’t get in so he went on to play at the University of Louisville in the early 1950’s. While the team didn’t do very well, Unitas did and his jersey number (#16) is the only one retired by that school. In 1955 Unitas was drafted in the 9th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL but was soon cut and ended up playing in a semi-pro league around Pittsburgh. Through the football grapevine the Baltimore Colts brought Unitas in for a tryout in 1956 and was signed to back up starter George Shaw. Shaw went down in the forth game and Unitas held on to the starting job, except when injured, from 1956-1972.
Unitas won 3 NFL championships in his career – the first which many consider to be the most pivotal professional football game ever played – the 1958 NFL Championship where the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in the first overtime game in NFL history. The game was televised nationwide and many credit the game for drawing the public’s attention to the National Football League and as the launching pad for today’s lucrative television contracts and the sport’s wide popularity. Some still refer to this game as the “Greatest Game Ever Played.” Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 and is one of four quarterbacks on the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All Time Team. (Note I am counting the 1958 and 1959 NFL Championships, which preceded the creation of the Super Bowl, and Super Bowl V as the Colts 3 NFL Championships. I am not counting the 1968 NFL Championship as the Colts lost to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III and Unitas was hurt that year and rarely played.)
Callahan says in his introduction that he sets out to write not just a biography of John Unitas but also to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be a professional football player in the 1950’s and 1960’s. As a biography of Unitas, Callahan is quite successful. We see Unitas not only through his own eyes, but through the eyes of the players, coaches, family, and friends who knew him. He really brings to life the personality, toughness, smarts, and perseverance that made Unitas the great quarterback and team leader he was throughout his career. The biography also includes interesting short vignettes on other great players on those Colts teams like Gino Marchetti, Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Art Donovan, and Jim Parker, to name a few.
Callahan is mostly successful at giving the reader an idea of what it was like to be a player in the 1950’s and 1960’s, although the way he does so is one of the biggest drawbacks of the biography. The structure and writing is sometimes rather disjointed and not well structured. There are too many asides, long parenthetical comments, or chapters that drift looking backward in time, or in the future, and then coming back to the main point, which was a little frustrating for this reader. While I do not expect a completely linear book – I felt the author could have done a better job of being a bit more seamless in the storytelling.
This drawback aside Callahan does provide one crucial insight – that the players of that era, unlike today, really were part of the community (at least the Colts’ players were). Since players made much less money back then a lot of them worked in the off season. Thus they lived, and often worked, in the communities where they played football. Further, they often lived in modest homes among everyday citizens, not tucked away in mansions or high income neighborhoods. As a result, the community became very attached to the organization and the players, and often vice versa. The depiction of the long, historical, close relationship between the Colts and the city of Baltimore really brought home what an awful event losing the team was to the city.
Finally, I have to mention that probably the best chapter was the one dedicated to the 1958 Championship Game. It’s told from the perspective of the Colts, not the Giants, and is a game that demonstrated Unitas’ leadership in pulling out a victory.
Overall, despite the jumpiness of some of the chapters, I found the biography a worthwhile and interesting reading experience and would recommend it to those who want to know a bit more about Johnny U and his Baltimore Colts.
[Reviewer Note: Author Tom Callahan is a journalist and sportswriter. He has worked at both Time magazine as a senor writer and the Washington Post as a sports columnist.]
Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas