Johnny Unitas: Career retrospective | Yardbarker


Hall of Famer Johnny Unitas is synonymous with greatness. From the 1950s through his 60s, the Baltimore Colts quarterback invented his innovations in the two-minute drill and other passes while winning four championships. He is the modern-day godfather of his NFL quarterbacks. Let’s take a look at his legendary career.

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high school career

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Johnny Unitas wrote the first chapter of his legend on the rough streets of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He played soccer at St. Justin High School. Unitas dreamed of playing college football at the University of Notre Dame, but was denied. After his graduation, Unitas continued his football career at the University of Louisville.

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Careers at the University of Louisville

Careers at the University of Louisville

Johnny Unitas statue outside Cardinal Stadium (2022).
Icon Sportswire-Contributor-Getty Images

The scrawny quarterback from Pittsburgh played for the Louisville Cardinals from 1951-54. He tallied his 3,139 yards and his 27 touchdowns in his college career. When Louisville’s athletic department cut his athletic budget in 1952, Cardinals football his team had to play Ironman football. During these tough financial times, Unitas stepped up and played defense, seeing time as a return man. Unitas graduated with a degree in physical education.

Cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers

Unitas with longtime coach Don Shula (1969).
Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The Unitas were poised to take the NFL by storm after graduating from college. He was drafted by his hometown team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, and in 1955 he was the 102nd pick in the 9th round of the NFL Draft. The Steelers cut Unitas during his camp in training.

4/20

work in construction to achieve a purpose

work in construction to achieve a purpose

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Unlucky and looking for work to support his wife and children, Unitas became a weekend warrior with semi-professional Bloomfield Rams while working in the construction industry. On the busy streets of Pittsburgh, Unitas is trying to make ends meet, trying to turn his dreams into reality.

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Tryouts go well with Baltimore Colts

Tryouts go well with Baltimore Colts

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

When Bloomfield Rams teammate Jim DeGraw got a tryout with the Baltimore Colts, he asked Unitas to join him. They packed their bags and headed to Pittsburgh with big dreams and empty pockets. Colts head coach Weeb Eubank was impressed with the unknown quarterback’s raw talent.The Colts signed Unitas following his stellar tryout performance.

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Lead the Colts to their first season win in franchise history

Lead the Colts to their first season win in franchise history

David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

As the Colts started quarterback, Unitas was thrown into the fire when George Shaw broke his leg. He played well in his rookie year. However, it was in his second year that Unitas’ legend came to fruition.

In 1957, Unitas threw for 2,550 yards and 24 touchdowns. The Colts are 7-5. It was the first winning season in franchise history. Unitas was considered an MVP contender for his tremendous efforts to make the Colts stand out.

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best game ever

best game ever

Robert Riger – Contributor – Getty Images

The Colts’ fortunes continued into the 1958 season. Unitas tallied his 2,007 yards and scored his league-leading 19 touchdowns, and the Colts won his 9–3. That was enough to face the New York Giants in the NFL Championship Game.

At Yankee Stadium, Unitas had an opportunity to lead his team to a 23-17 overtime victory over the Giants. Unitas led his two-minute drill to tie the game at 17. Unitas, in the final moments of this game he invented a two-minute drill. He finished his day with his 349 yards and a touchdown.

The 1958 NFL Championship was the first nationally televised game and is considered the greatest. This game had his 12 Hall of Fame inductees. It also introduced Americans to mainstream football. After this match, the popularity of the sport skyrocketed.No other game had such a big impact on football, and it gained attention as a recreational sport.

MVP award

David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

In 1959, Unitas was named MVP for 2,899 yards and 32 touchdowns. The Colts went 9-3 under Unitas’ leadership. At this stage in his career, no one could throw the ball better than Unitas.

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back to back

back to back

David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

The 1959 Colts defeated the New York Giants in a championship rematch, 31-16, making the Colts back-to-back champions. The Colts were his NFL world champions during this era.

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End of an incredible winning streak

End of an incredible winning streak

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

From 1956 to 1960, Johnny Unitas threw a touchdown pass in 47 straight games. This is his NFL record. Many thought the record was unbreakable. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees broke records in the 2012 season. Brees may be the record holder, but Unitas’ original record is far more impressive considering that the modern NFL was a pass-happy league and Unitas’ era was defined by smashmouth football.

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a prolific passer-by of his time

a prolific passer-by of his time

Unitas in action in the 1960 Pro Bowl
David Boss-USA TODAY Sports

Unitas led the league in passing touchdowns four times (1957, ’58, ’59, ’60) and four (’57, ’59, ’60, ’63) . Every time Unitas went back into his pocket to make a pass, he invented the blueprint for the modern quarterback. Unitas recall that he played in a season of 14 games in a run-dominant era. Lord knows the numbers he put up in the league today.

12/20

Unitas wins second MVP award

Unitas wins second MVP award

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Unitas continued to rack up stats, throwing for 2,824 yards and 19 touchdowns. The Colts went 12-2 and Unitas was named his MVP for the second time in his career. The Colts lost his NFL championship to Cleveland in his 27–0 shutout to the Browns.

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1965 season lost to injury

1965 season lost to injury

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Unitas suffered a season-ending knee injury late in the 1965 season. Before the injury, Unitas was his MVP contender and the Colts were poised to win another championship. Unfortunately, with the Colts’ season lost to injury, the football gods had other plans.

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Win the final MVP

Win the final MVP

Malcolm Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Unitas was revived in 1967. The Colts franchise his quarterback tallied 3,428 yards and his 20th touchdown, earning him the third and final MVP award. The Colts went 11-1-2 that year. Interesting Fact: The Unitas favorite targets were Jimmy Orr and Hall of Famers John Mackey, Lenny Moore and Raymond Berry. They put out numbers that have never been seen before.

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Losing Super Bowl III

Losing Super Bowl III

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Following a glorious 1967 season, the reigning NFL MVP played just five games with an arm injury. Either way, the Colts won his 1968 NFL Championship Game and qualified for Super Bowl III. Unitas was thrown into the starting line-up in the closing stages to make something happen. In the end, the New York Jets won the game after Joe Namath’s guarantee.

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Unitas Wins Super Bowl Ring

Unitas Wins Super Bowl Ring

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The NFL and AFL merged in 1970. It shaped the modern NFL. In his first season in the modern NFL, Unitas passed for 2,213 yards and 14 touchdowns while leading the Colts to 11-2-1. He led the Colts to victory over the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl V with his 16-13 score. Unitas suffered a rib injury in the second quarter that kept him out of the game. Backup quarterback Earl Morrall filled in and signed the deal.

Unitas is now an NFL Champion and a Super Bowl Champion, and his legacy cannot be criticized as one of the greatest.

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Last year with the Colts

Last year with the Colts

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Regaining momentum from their Super Bowl win, the Colts crashed to Earth. They never reached the Super Bowl again under a morale-split-start Unitas. At this stage in his career, Unitas was one of the league’s most respected players, but his body succumbed to the hitting wear and tear he had endured.

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Finish career with San Diego Chargers

Finish career with San Diego Chargers

Charles Aqua Viva – Contributor – Getty Images

Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973. In his lone season as a 40-year-old Charger, Unitas threw for 471 yards, three touchdowns, and seven interceptions. The Chargers went 4-9-1 and Unitas was eventually replaced by future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. Unitas retired from the NFL in 1974.

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The quarterback who revolutionized the position

The quarterback who revolutionized the position

Darryl Norenburg – USA TODAY Sports

One of the greatest athletes in Baltimore history, Unitas finished his storied career with 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. His blue-collar background made him a perfect fit for the city of Baltimore. He came out of nothing to become the best quarterback of his era. Possessing great leadership skills, Unitas was poised, poised, and tough—everything a franchise quarterback should have.

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Hall of Fame

Hall of Fame

Tony Tomsic-USA TODAY Sports

Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. Unitas sadly passed away in 2002 at the age of 69 from a heart attack, but his legend lives on forever.

David J. Hunt is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. He ran cross-country at Penn State University, became a volunteer firefighter during COVID-19, and became a self-taught journalist. He’s a hardcore Philadelphia sports fan. When he’s not watching sports, he enjoys working out, fishing and traveling. You can find more of his work at The Chestnut Hill Local and The Temple News. You can follow him on Twitter. @dave_hunt44.





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