Hall of Fame (American) football quarterback
, considered by some to be the greatest
of all time.
Unitas (DOB: May 7, 1933; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania) wasn't highly recruited in high school and attended the University of Louisville. The Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Unitas in the 9th round (102nd overall) of the 1955 NFL draft, and proceeded to release him shortly afterwards.
For the next year, Unitas played semi-pro football, before the Baltimore Colts signed him to a contract in 1956.
The Colts hadn't planned on playing Unitas much at all. However, their starting quarterback broke his leg early in the season and Unitas was forced to take over. For the rest of the season, Unitas completed 55.6% of his passes (a league record for rookies, at the time). The guy who nobody wanted would be the Colts starting quarterback for 17 seasons.
In 1957, the league's players selected Unitas as the league's MVP (an unofficial honor). In just his second full season as the starter (1958), Unitas led his Colts to the NFL championship game (years before the first Super Bowl). In what has been nicknamed "The Greatest Game Ever Played", at Yankee Stadium in New York, the Colts beat the New York Giants 23-17 in overtime (the first ever overtime game in league history) for the league title. The game was the first NFL championship game that was nationally televised, spreading interest in football more than any one game previously. This one game is often viewed as the launching point for the success of the NFL in the following decades (and today).
Unitas led the Colts to their 2nd consecutive NFL championship in 1959, also defeating the Giants in the title game. He earned league MVP award that season as well (in those days, there was no "official" MVP. Unitas was named MVP by UPI. Charlie Connerly of the Giants was the Associated Press's choice).
From 1956-1960, Unitas threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, a record which still stands. In fact, it hasn't even been approached (2nd all-time is Dan Marino with 30 straight games from 1985-1987).
Unitas led the league in passing touchdowns 4 consecutive seasons, from 1957-1960, a feat which has not been accomplished since.
For most of the '60s, Unitas was the top quarterback in the NFL, winning the league MVP twice (in 1964 and 1967; by both the AP and UPI). He was also named "Player of the Decade" for the 1960s by the Associated Press.
Unitas was injured for most of the 1968 season, but the Colts still won the NFL championship for the first time since 1959. The Colts appeared in Super Bowl III (in the first Super Bowl which was officially named the "Super Bowl") and despite being huge favorites, were shocked by Joe Namath and the AFL's New York Jets 16-7. Unitas came off the bench to drive the Colts to their lone score in the game.
In his second Super Bowl appearance (Super Bowl V; January 17, 1971), Unitas got injured and the first half and was forced to leave the game. However, he had thrown a touchdown pass, which helped lead the Colts to a 16-13 vistory over the Dallas Cowboys in the game.
Unitas would remain a Colt through 1972, before playing his final NFL season for the San Diego Chargers.
He retired as the NFL's all-time leader in pass completions (2830), pass attempts (5186), passing yards (40,239), and touchdown passes (290). (All of those records have since been broken). He appeared in 10 Pro Bowls.
In 1979, Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
In 1999, ESPN's SportsCentury selected Unitas as the #32 North American athlete of the 20th century.
Even more recently, Unitas was on the cover of the May 7, 2001 issue of Sports Illustrated and as one of the main subjects of the article "The Wrecking Yard", about former NFL players who are disabled as a result of playing football. Unitas can hardly use his right hand.
Unitas was one of the first great dropback passers, setting league records with grace and precision. He helped bring football into the mainstream, and can be given some of the credit for making it as popular as it is now.
Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack on September 11, 2002, at the age of 69.