The way he held the pigskin. His flat-top haircut. The manner in which his uniform draped over his shoulder pads. That steely gaze. Everything about Johnny Unitas screamed: Quarterback.
During his 17-year career, Unitas was a winner amongst winners, compiling a record of 118-63-4. The Pennsylvania native—who, full disclosure, boasted the less-than-quarterbacky middle name of Constantine—won three MVP, made ten Pro Bowls, and has himself a Super Bowl ring.
But you’re an aficionado of amazing passing and cool athletes, you probably already know that stuff. Here are some Constantine-centric tidbits with which you might not be familiar.
Third Time Was the Charm
Unitas had the dream of playing professional football when he was a young child. Part of that dream was to take a pit stop during college and toss some TDs for the University of Notre Dame.
They didn’t want him, though, because it seemed unlikely he’d be able to add weight and muscle to his slight frame. He had a chance to stay home and play on a scholarship for the University of Pittsburgh, but that didn’t happen because he failed the entrance exam.
That’s how he ended up at the University of Louisville on a scholarship, and probably the most important thing that happened during this time was his physical growth — he sprouted two inches and gained 56 pounds during his college football career.
Coulda Been a Homer
Although Johnny U attended Louisville, he was born and raised in Pittsburgh. While he had to wait until the ninth round to get selected, it had to be a thrill to get drafted by his hometown Steelers.
The problem was that Pittsburgh already had three quarterbacks on its roster. One opportunity to show what he could do might have changed his future, but he barely got a chance to strut his stuff before getting cut following the final preseason game in 1955.
Steelers owner Art Rooney, Jr. summed it up best when he said, “The coaches would run the quarterbacks through drills, and sometimes the whistle would blow before John even got a turn.”
Steelers loss = Colts gain, eh?
Football Used to be a Side Hustle
After Pittsburgh cut him, Unitas had to find a way to put food on the table for his wife and kids. So, like any good provider would do, he found a stable job in construction during the day, and played semipro football for the Bloomfield (NJ) Rams on the weekends for $6 per game. (Gig economy, 1950s style.)
Unitas eventually landed a tryout with the Baltimore Colts. That went well, and he signed for $7,000 to be the team’s backup quarterback in 1956, sparing him a life of driving Ubers.
Patience, Johnny, Patience
Would Tom Brady be the quarterback we know today if Drew Bledsoe didn’t get hurt at the start of the 2001 season? Maybe, but we’ll never know.
Unitas had a unique set of skills that made him one of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play, but, like Brady, he couldn’t display them until he had to step in for an injured starter. Twice.
While attending St. Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh, he earned All-Catholic High School team honors as a senior. But he wouldn’t have accomplished this without first only becoming the starter when the original first-string quarterback was forced to the sideline with a broken ankle.
Continuing the trend, Johnny was supposed to be the backup for George Shaw during the Colts’ 1956-57 campaign, but he was thrust into the starter role after Shaw broke his leg four games into the season.
Take Me Out to the (Base)ball Game
Unitas was pretty good at pigskin, so naturally, there’s plenty of football-related memorabilia bearing his name. Unnaturally, there’s also plenty of non-football related memorabilia bearing his name. Unitas, for whatever reason, had a predilection for inking his John Hancock on baseballs.
Which begs the question, what’s next, a toilet signed by one of the greatest running backs ever? Oh, wait… (P.S. – For the record, we at the TPA mothership will never tire of mentioning the Barry Sanders urinal. Never.)