John Unitas “The Golden Arm”
Many athletes have to depend on their talent and regular season statistics to tell the story of how incredible they were.
Not Johnny Unitas. The former Baltimore Colts quarterback has four championships to back up his standing among the all-time greats.
Unitas won four NFL championships in 16 seasons with the Colts. The three he won in 1958, 1959 and 1968 came in the pre-Super Bowl era. His fourth came in Super Bowl V, which was played in 1971.
A potent passer
Nicknamed “Johnny U” and “The Golden Arm,” Unitas had the mold of the modern era’s prototype for a quarterback. He had a strong arm and directed a dynamite passing game.
He racked up three NFL MVP awards and was a 5-time First-Team All-Pro selection. He led the NFL in passing yards and passing touchdowns four times. His 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass between 1956 and 1960 was a league record before Drew Brees broke it in 2012.
He was named to the 1960s All-Decade Team and the NFL’s 50th, 75th and 100th Anniversary All-Time Teams. Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
The greatest game ever played
Unitas had a leading role in the Colts’ victory in the 1958 NFL Championship game, which is known as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Unitas threw one touchdown pass in the first half, the Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in overtime to give Unitas his first championship. It was the first playoff game in NFL history decided in sudden death overtime.
Another major reason why the game is so memorable is that it was televised live nationally on NBC. It drew an estimated 45 million viewers and had an impact that reached farther than that. The American Football League was created the following year and eventually merged with the NFL.
It is widely regarded as one of the major milestones in pro football history in the United States.
An inauspicious beginning
Unitas added his second championship the next season, and his status as one of the best of all-time was well on its way to being cemented.
That Unitas’ career happened in Baltimore was the fault of the Pittsburgh Steelers, who drafted him in the ninth round but released him before the season.
Unable to catch on to another NFL team, Unitas began working construction in Pittsburgh and played quarterback, safety and punter for a semi-professional team called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game.
One of Unitas’ Bloomfield teammates got a tryout with the Baltimore Colts, and Unitas tagged along to try out as well. The Colts liked him well enough to sign him. Just a few weeks into his rookie season, the starting quarterback suffered a broken leg, and the starting job was given to Unitas.
His first few games were not good, but eventually, Unitas caught on, and the rest is history.
Injury troubles and legacy
Despite a significant drop in effectiveness due to arm trouble over his last handful of seasons, Unitas set many league records. He was the first quarterback to pass for more than 40,000 yards in his career. He was also the first quarterback to throw at least 30 touchdown passes in a season when he connected on 32 in 1959.
That arm trouble continued once he retired. He almost lost the use of his right hand because his middle finger and thumb were disfigured due to being repeatedly broken during games. He also suffered an elbow injury and had artificial knees.
Unitas was one of the first former NFL players to bring media attention to how severe injuries affect football players. Heavy padding and other safety features were not widely used during Unitas’ career.