“Conceit is bragging about yourself. Confidence is knowing you can get the job done.”
Always in the conversation for the best quarterback in NFL history, Johnny Unitas overcame his diminutive size and limited athleticism and starred for the Baltimore Colts for a whopping 17 seasons. The Hall of Famer led the Colts to three pre-Super Bowl NFL championships and one Super Bowl victory, picking up three league MVP awards along the way.
The ten-time All-Pro finished his career having thrown for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, but perhaps his most impressive number was W’s—he finished his career in 1973 with 118 wins and only 63 losses. Unitas was the template for pocket passers such as fellow Colts legend Peyton Manning, and is still viewed with reverence by players and coaches throughout the NFL
ABOUT THE ASSET
Presented is a jersey worn and signed by Johnny Unitas. The jersey has been photomatched to September 26, 1965, a game that pitted his Baltimore Colts against the Green Bay Packers in which Unitas threw for 211 yards and a touchdown.
The jersey comes with a notarized letter that it was obtained by Joel Platt, the founder
of Sports Immortals, Inc., by the Colts’ equipment manager Fred Schubach, a good
friend. Several years later Platt met Johnny Unitas at a banquet in Pittsburgh where he signed the jersey for him with the inscription, “Best Wishes Joel.” In 2020, James Spence Authentication (JSA) certified the autograph and inscription as authentic.
The item is consistent with specifications of the professional jersey style for the Colts during the 1965 season. White nylon dureen fabric pull-over long-sleeve jersey manufactured by MacGregor. “19” centered on the front and back in one color blue tackle twill. No name on the back, which is correct for the period.
ABOUT THE ASSET
A Macgregor manufacturer size 46 tag is sewn in the tail of the jersey. Directly to the left of it is a washing instruction manufacturer tag. All tagging matches exemplars on hand.
It is clear that this jersey has been washed and used many times. There are team repairs on the front and back of the jersey. Dirt stains are present throughout. Twill numbers shows heavy puckering and the manufacturer tag is starting to come apart from repeated use, which is to be expected. Aside from the team repairs, the jersey remains unaltered and is 100% original.
In 2015, Hunt Auctions sold a 1968 Unitas jersey for $103,000.
That same year, Grey Flannel sold a Unitas jersey with no definitive date for $118,230.
Over the past decade, the value of a mint condition Unitas’ 1957 Topps rookie card has more than quadrupled to $82,000.
Jerseys are considered by some as the most valuable sports memorabilia because they are the closest thing to the athletes, literally the shirts off their back.
One of the world’s most valuable pieces of sports memorabilia is a 1920 game worn Babe Ruth uniform top, which SCP Auctions sold for $4,425,658 in 2012.
Unitas was a mediocre pro prospect, selected deep in the draft in the ninth round by the NFL’s Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955. They cut him before the regular season began because there were three quarterbacks ahead of him on the depth chart and the Steelers head coach believe Unitas lacked the intelligence to be an NFL quarterback. He didn’t play a second in any of the five exhibition games, nor did he get a single snap in practice.
“The Steelers in the 50s were a far cry from the powerhouse they are today.,” writes Oliver Connolly. “The organization reeked of failure and mismanagement, and there is probably no finer example of this than their decision to cut Unitas without even giving him a shot.”
But the strong, silent Unitas was never one to complain…most of the time. “Most of the time they acted like I wasn’t there,” he said of the Steelers.
Unitas was reduced to hustling construction jobs to support his wife and small child. On weekends, he played quarterback and defensive back with old equipment on sandlot fields for a semiprofessional team in Bloomfield in the Pittsburgh area for $6 a game. (Sandlot may be too generous a term. The litter-strewn field was actually dirt rather than grass and sprayed with oil before games to keep the dust down.)
Fortunately, Unitas did not toil in vain. An admirer noticed his exploits on the sandlots.
The Colts gave Unitas a tryout. He and a friend, a lineman on his sandlot team, had to borrow money from friends to pay for the gas for the trip. The friend later recalled that Unitas’ uncle told him not to go for fear of disappointment.
The Colts offered a $7,000 signing bonus in early 1956, and he joined them for their spring exhibition. Ewbank liked everything he saw, even Unitas’ size. “He was a big boy with good speed,” Ewbank said. “Not dazzling speed, but good speed. And he was so very eager to learn.”
In an episode eerily reminiscent of high school, Unitas was pressed into service as a starter after the first-string quarterback broke his leg during the fourth game of Unitas’s rookie season. (The other backup was in law school.) His beginning was inauspicious. His first pass in his starting role was a Pick 6. Then in his very next play, he fumbled a hand-off and the Bears recovered. The Colts lost 58-27.
He bounced back quickly, leading the Colts to an upset of Green Bay and their first win against Cleveland. He threw nine touchdown passes that year, including one in the last game that started his record 47-game touchdown streak. His 55.6-percent completion rate also set a rookie record.
He was the starter behind the center for good. After earning an MVP award in 1957, by 1958 Unitas was regarded as the best quarterback in the NFL. He led Baltimore to a 23-17 overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship on national TV, a game often proclaimed as football’s “greatest ever played.” Unitas’ meteoric rise to fame from such humble beginnings made him the classic rags-to-riches hero as professional football exploded in popularity; soon rivaling America’s national pastime, baseball.
On the NFL’s 50th anniversary in 2009, Unitas was voted the greatest quarterback of all time. He was Most Valuable Player three times and played in 10 Pro Bowls. He led his team to the NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 and the Super Bowl in 1970. To cap it all off, he was inducted into the football Hall of Fame in 1979.
But he never lost sight of where he came from.
“The most important thing of all about Unitas is that he had a real hunger,” said Eubanks. “This was a kid who wanted success and didn’t have it so long that he wasn’t about to waste it when it came.”
David Seideman is a Senior Editor for Collectable. His sportswriting has been seen in Time, Sports Illustrated, and Forbes.