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Johnny Unitas

From Academic Kids

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SIUnitas2002.jpg
Unitas under centre, on the 9/23/02 cover of Sports Illustrated's tribute to him

John Constantine Unitas (May 7, 1933September 11, 2002) was a professional American football player in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. Unitas is considered by many to have been one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. He was the National Football League's most valuable player in 1957, 1959 and 1964.

Unitas was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1933. Johnny's father died when he was five years old and he was raised by his Lithuanian immigrant mother who worked two jobs to support the family. He attended St Justin's High School in Pittsburgh where Unitas played halfback and quarterback. After high school, Unitas looked for an opportunity to play college football. He was passed over by Notre Dame and Indiana. Pitt offered a scholarship, but Unitas failed the entrance exam. Louisville finally came through with a scholarship and Johnny left home for Kentucky.

Missing image
SIUnitas2001.jpg
Later in life, Unitas couldn't use his right hand because of injuries as detailed in the 5/7/01 issue of SI

After his college career at the University of Louisville, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL, but was released before the season began. By then he was married with a child and worked construction in Pittsburgh to support his family. On the weekends, he played on a local semipro team called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game.

In 1956 Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts NFL team under legendary coach Weeb Ewbank. The Colts won the NFL championship under his leadership in 1958, by defeating the New York Giants in sudden death overtime. It was the first overtime game in NFL history, and is often referred to as the "greatest game ever played". The game, nationally televised by NBC, has been credited for sparking the rise in popularity of football during the 1960s. Unitas then led the Colts to a repeat championship in 1959. Later in his career, although he was injured through most of the 1968 season, he came off the bench to play in Super Bowl III, which the Colts lost. He helped score the Colts' only score- a touchdown late in the game, when it was already out of reach. Unitas was also injured during the Super Bowl V, but he did throw a key touchdown pass in the game that helped lift the team to victory.

Johnny Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1972, and retired from football in 1974. He was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Unitas set many passing records during his career. He was the first quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards, despite playing during an era when NFL teams played shorter seasons of 12 or 14 games (as opposed to the 16 game seasons that are played today). He also threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games between 1956 and 1960, a record that still stands today.

Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award has been awarded to the top senior quarterback of the current year in college football.

He died of a heart attack in Timonium, Maryland at the age of 69 — on the one-year anniversary of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The football stadium at Towson University in Towson, Maryland is named after him; he had taken a job with the school weeks before his death.

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