John Constantine Unitas was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 to Francis J. Unitas and Helen Superfisky, who both were of Lithuanian descent; he grew up in the Mount Washington neighborhood. When Johnny was five years old, his father died of cardiovascular renal disease complicated by pneumonia, leaving the young boy to be raised by his mother, who worked two jobs to support the family. His surname was a result of a phonetic transliteration of a common Lithuanian last name Jonaitis. Attending St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played halfback and quarterback. After high school, Unitas looked for an opportunity to play college football.
The University of Louisville offered him the opportunity and Unitas left home to play for the Cardinals.
In his younger years, Unitas dreamed about being part of the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame but when he tried out for the team, coach Frank Leahy simply said that he was just too skinny and he would "get murdered" if he was put on the field.
In his four-year career as a Louisville Cardinal, Unitas completed 245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns. Reportedly, the 6-foot-1 Unitas weighed 145 pounds on his first day of practice at Louisville. Unitas's first start was in the fifth game of the 1951 season against St. Bonaventure. That game, the freshman threw 11 consecutive passes and three touchdowns to give the Cardinals a 21–19 lead. Though Louisville lost the game 22–21 on a disputed field goal, the team had found a talented quarterback. Unitas completed 12 of 19 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns in a 35–28 victory over Houston. The team finished the season 5–5 overall and 4–1 with Unitas as the starting quarterback. As a freshman, Unitas completed 46 of 99 passes for 602 yards and nine touchdowns (44).
By the 1952 season, the university decided to de-emphasize sports. The new president at Louisville, Dr. Philip Grant Davidson, reduced the amount of athletic aid, and tightened academic standards for athletes. As a result, 15 returning players could not meet the new standards and lost their scholarships. But Unitas maintained his scholarship by taking on a new elective: square dancing. In 1952 Coach Camp switched the team to two-way football. Unitas not only played safety or linebacker on defense and quarterback on offense but returned kicks and punts on special teams. The Cards won their first game against Wayne State, and then Florida State in the second game. Unitas completed 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. It was said that Unitas put on such a show at the Florida State game that he threw a pass under his legs for 15 yards. The rest of the season was a struggle for the Cards, who finished 3–5. Unitas completed 106 of 198 passes for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns in his sophomore year.
The team won their first game in 1953, against Murray State, and lost the rest for a record of 1–7. One of the most memorable games of the season came in a 59–6 loss against Tennessee. Unitas completed 9 of 19 passes for 73 yards, rushed 9 times for 52 yards, returned 6 kickoffs for eighty-five yards, 1 punt for three yards, and had 86 percent of the team's tackles. The only touchdown the team scored was in the fourth quarter when Unitas made a fake pitch to the running back and ran the ball 23 yards for a touchdown. Unitas was hurt later in the fourth quarter while trying to run the ball. On his way off the field, he received a standing ovation. When he got to the locker room he was so worn that his jersey and shoulder pads had to be cut off because he could not lift his arms. Louisville ended the season with a 20–13 loss to Eastern Kentucky. In his junior year, Unitas completed 49 of 95 passes for 470 yards and three touchdowns.
Unitas was elected captain for the 1954 season, but due to an early injury did not see much playing time. His first start was the third game of the season, against Florida State. Of the 34-man team, 21 were freshmen. The 1954 m Cardinals went 3–6, with their last win at home against Morehead State. Unitas was slowed by so many injuries his senior year his 527 passing yards ended second to Jim Houser's 560.
After his collegiate career, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL drafted Unitas in the ninth round. However, Unitas was released before the season began as the odd man out among four quarterbacks trying to fill three spots. Steelers Head Coach Walt Kiesling had made up his mind about Unitas; he thought he was not smart enough to quarterback an NFL team, and Unitas was not given any snaps in practice with the Steelers. Among those edging out Unitas was Ted Marchibroda, future longtime NFL head coach. Out of pro football, Unitas—by this time married—worked in construction in Pittsburgh to support his family. On the weekends, he played quarterback, safety and punter on a local semi-professional team called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game.
In 1956, Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts of the NFL under legendary coach Weeb Ewbank, after being asked at the last minute to join Bloomfield Rams lineman Jim Deglau, a Croatian steel worker with a life much like Unitas', at the latter's scheduled Colts tryout. The pair borrowed money from friends to pay for the gas to make the trip. Deglau later told a reporter after Unitas' death, "[His] uncle told him not to come. [He] was worried that if he came down and the Colts passed on him, it would look bad (to other NFL teams)." The Colts signed Unitas, much to the chagrin of the Cleveland Browns, who had hoped to claim the rejected Steeler quarterback.
Unitas made his NFL debut with an inauspicious "mop-up" appearance against Detroit, going 0-2 with one interception. Two weeks later, starting quarterback George Shaw suffered a broken leg against the Chicago Bears. In his first serious action, Unitas' initial pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then he botched a hand-off on his next play, a fumble recovered by the Bears. Unitas rebounded quickly from that 58–27 loss, leading the Colts to an upset of Green Bay and their first win over Cleveland. He threw nine touchdown passes that year, including one in the season finale that started his record 47-game streak. His 55.6-percent completion mark was a rookie record.
In 1957, his first season as the Colts full-time starter at quarterback, Unitas finished first in the NFL in passing yards (2,550) and touchdown passes (24) as he helped lead the Colts to a 7–5 record, the first winning record in franchise history. At season's end, Unitas received the Jim Thorpe Trophy as the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA).
Unitas continued his prowess in 1958 passing for 2,007 yards and 19 touchdowns as the Colts won the Western Conference title. The Colts won the NFL championship under Unitas' leadership on December 28, 1958, by defeating the New York Giants 23–17 in sudden death overtime on a touchdown by fullback Alan Ameche. It was the first overtime game in NFL history, and is often referred to as the "greatest game ever played". The game, nationally televised by NBC, has been credited for sparking the rise in popularity of professional football during the 1960s.
In 1959, Unitas was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press (AP) for the first time, as well as United Press International's player of the year, after leading the NFL in passing yards (2,899), touchdown passes (32), and completions (193). Unitas then led the Colts to a repeat championship, beating the Giants again 31–16 in the title game.
As the 1960s began, the Colts' fortunes (and win totals) declined. Injuries to key players such as Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, and Lenny Moore were a contributing factor. Unitas' streak of 47 straight games with at least one touchdown pass ended against the Los Angeles Rams in week 11 of the 1960 season. In spite of this, Unitas topped the 3000 yard passing mark for the first time and led the league in touchdown passes for the fourth consecutive season.
After three middle-of-the-pack seasons, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired Weeb Ewbank and replaced him with Don Shula, who at the time was the youngest head coach in NFL history (33 years of age when he was hired). The Colts finished 8–6 in Shula's first season at the helm, good enough for only third place in the NFL's Western Conference but they did end the season on a strong note by winning their final three games. The season was very successful for Unitas personally as he led the NFL in passing yards with a career-best total of 3,481 and also led in completions with 237.
The 1964 season would see the Colts return to the top of the Western Conference. After dropping their season opener to the Minnesota Vikings, the Colts ran off 10 straight victories to finish with a 12–2 record. The season was one of Unitas' best as he finished with 2,824 yards passing, a league-best 9.26 yards per pass attempt, 19 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the AP and UPI for a second time. However, the season would end on a disappointing note for the Colts as they were upset by the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, losing 27–0.
Unitas resumed his torrid passing in 1965, as he threw for 2,530 yards, 23 touchdowns and finished with a league-high and career best 97.1 passer rating. But he was lost for the balance of the season due to a knee injury in a week 12 loss to the Bears. More postseason heartbreak would follow in 1965. The Colts and Packers finished in a tie for first place in the Western Conference and a one-game playoff was played in Green Bay to decide who would be the conference representative in the 1965 NFL Championship Game. The Colts lost in overtime 13–10 due in large part to a game-tying field goal by Don Chandler that many say was incorrectly ruled good. Backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo also suffered a season-ending injury the following week and it would be running back Tom Matte who filled in as the emergency QB for the regular-season finale and the playoff loss to the Packers.
Unitas, healthy once more, threw for 2748 yards and 22 touchdowns in 1966 in a return to Pro Bowl form. However, he posted a league-high 24 interceptions.
After once again finishing 2nd in the Western Conference in 1966, the Colts rebounded to finish 11–1–2 in 1967 tying the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL's best record. In winning his third MVP award from the AP and UPI in 1967 (and his second from the NEA), Unitas had a league-high 58.5 completion percentage and passed for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns. He openly complained about having tennis elbow and he threw eight interceptions and only three touchdown passes in the final five games. Once again, the season ended in heartbreak for the Colts, as they were shut out of the newly instituted four team NFL playoff after losing the divisional tiebreaker to the Rams, a 34–10 rout in the regular season finale.
In the final game of the 1968 preseason, the muscles in Unitas' arm were torn when he was hit by a member of the Dallas Cowboys defense. Unitas wrote in his autobiography that he felt his arm was initially injured by the use of the "night ball" that the NFL was testing for better TV visibility during night games. In a post-game interview the previous year, he noted having constant pain in his elbow for several years prior. He would spend most of the season sitting on the bench. The Colts still marched to a league-best 13–1 record behind backup quarterback and ultimate 1968 NFL MVP Earl Morrall. Although he was injured through most of the season, Unitas came off the bench to play in Super Bowl III, the famous game where Joe Namath guaranteed a New York Jets win despite conventional wisdom. Unitas' insertion was a desperation move in an attempt to retrieve dominance of the NFL over the upstart AFL. Although the Colts won an NFL Championship in 1968, they lost the Super Bowl to the AFL Champion New York Jets, thus becoming the first ever NFL champions that were not also deemed world champions. Unitas helped put together the Colts' only score, a touchdown late in the game. Unitas also drove the Colts into scoring position following the touchdown and successful onside kick, but for reasons that to this day are unknown, head coach Don Shula eschewed a field goal attempt, which (if successful) would have cut the Jets' lead to 16-10. Despite not playing until late in the third quarter, Unitas still finished the game with more passing yards than the team's starter, Earl Morrall.
After an off-season of rehabilitation on his elbow, Unitas rebounded in 1969, passing for 2342 yards and twelve touchdowns with 20 interceptions. But the Colts finished with a disappointing 8-5-1 record, and missed the playoffs.
In 1970, the NFL and AFL had merged into one league, and the Colts moved to the new American Football Conference, along with the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Unitas threw for 2213 yards and 14 touchdowns while leading the Colts to an 11-2-1 season. In their first rematch with the Jets, Unitas and Namath threw a combined nine interceptions in a 29-22 Colts win. Namath threw 62 passes and broke his hand on the final play of the game, ending his season.
Unitas threw for 390 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in AFC playoff victories over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders. In Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys, he was knocked out of the game with a rib injury in the second quarter, soon after throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass (setting a then-Super Bowl record) to John Mackey. However, he had also tossed two interceptions before his departure from the game. Earl Morrall came in to lead the team to a last second, 16-13 victory.
In 1971, Unitas split playing time with Morrall, throwing only three touchdown passes. He started both playoff games, a win over the Cleveland Browns that sent the Colts to the AFC Championship game against the Miami Dolphins, which they lost by a score of 21–0. Unitas threw three interceptions in the game, one being returned for a touchdown by safety Dick Anderson.
The 1972 season saw the Colts declining into mediocrity. After losing the season opener, Unitas was involved in the second and final regular season head-to-head meeting with "Broadway" Joe Namath. The first was in 1970 (won by the Colts, 29–22). The last meeting was a memorable one, which took place on September 24, 1972, at Memorial Stadium. Unitas threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns, but Namath upstaged him again, bombing the Colts for 496 yards and six touchdowns in a 44–34 Jets victory – their first over Baltimore since the 1970 merger. After losing four of their first five games, the Colts fired Head Coach Don McCafferty, and benched Unitas.
One of the more memorable moments in football history came on Unitas' last game in a Colts uniform at Memorial Stadium, in a game against the Buffalo Bills. Unitas was not the starter for this game, but the Colts were blowing the Bills out by a score of 28–0 behind Marty Domres; Unitas entered the game due to the fans chanting, "We want Unitas!!!", and a plan devised by head coach John Sandusky to convince Unitas that the starting quarterback was injured. Unitas came onto the field, and proceeded to throw his last pass at home as a Colts player. It was a short pass that wide receiver Eddie Hinton was able to turn into a long touchdown, and the Colts won the game by a score of 35–7.
Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973 after posting a 5-9 record in 1972 with Baltimore, but he was far past his prime. He replaced former Chargers quarterback John Hadl. He was replaced in Baltimore by Marty Domres, who had been acquired from the San Diego Chargers in August, 1972. Domres was ultimately replaced by LSU's Bert Jones, drafted with the number two overall pick in 1973. Unitas started the season with a 38-0 loss to the Washington Redskins. He threw for just 55 yards and 3 interceptions, and was sacked 8 times. His final victory as a starter came against the Buffalo Bills in week two. Unitas was 10-18 for 175 yards, two touchdown passes, and no interceptions in a 34-7 Chargers rout . Unitas was clearly not the same player he was years ago and many were questioning his role as a starter after a loss to the Bengals in week three. Two weeks later, he threw two first-half interceptions, passed for only 19 yards, and went 2-for-9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was then replaced by rookie quarterback, future Hall-of-Famer Dan Fouts. After having posted a 1-3 record as a starter, Unitas retired in the preseason of 1974.
Unitas finished his 18 NFL seasons with 2,830 completions in 5,186 attempts for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, with 253 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns. Plagued by arm trouble in his later seasons, he threw more interceptions (64) than touchdowns (38) in 1968–1973. After averaging 215.8 yards per game in his first twelve seasons, his production fell to 124.4 in his final six. His Passer Rating plummeted from 82.9 to 60.4 for the same periods. Even so, Unitas set many passing records during his career. He was the first quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards, despite playing during an era when NFL teams played shorter seasons of 12 or 14 games (as opposed to today's 16-game seasons) and prior to modern passing-friendly rules implemented in 1978. His 32 touchdown passes in 1959 were a record at the time, making Unitas the first QB to hit the 30 touchdown mark in a season. His 47-game consecutive touchdown streak between 1956 and 1960 was a record considered by many to be unbreakable. The streak stood for 52 years before being broken by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in a game against the San Diego Chargers on October 7, 2012.
After his playing days were finished, Unitas settled in Baltimore where he raised his family while also pursuing a career in broadcasting, doing color commentary for NFL games on CBS in the 1970s. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. After Robert Irsay moved the Colts franchise to Indianapolis in 1984, a move reviled to this day in Baltimore as "Bob Irsay's Midnight Ride," Unitas was so outraged that he cut all ties to the relocated team (though his No. 19 jersey is still retired by the Colts), declaring himself strictly a Baltimore Colt for the remainder of his life. Some other prominent old-time Colts followed his lead, although many attended the 1975 team's reunion at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in 2009. A total of 39 Colts players from that 1975 team attended said reunion in Indianapolis, including Bert Jones and Lydell Mitchell. Unitas asked the Pro Football Hall of Fame on numerous occasions (including on Roy Firestone's Up Close) to remove his display unless it was listed as belonging to the Baltimore Colts. The Hall of Fame has never complied with the request. Unitas donated his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore; they are now on display in the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.
Unitas was inducted into the American Football Association's Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.
Unitas actively lobbied for another NFL team to come to Baltimore. After the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and changed their name to the Ravens, Unitas and some of the other old-time Colts attended the Ravens' first game ever against the Raiders on Opening Day at Memorial Stadium. Unitas was frequently seen on the Ravens' sidelines at home games (most prominently in 1998 when the now-Indianapolis Colts played the Ravens) and received a thunderous ovation every time he was pictured on each of the huge widescreens at M&T Bank Stadium. He was often seen on the 30-yard line on the Ravens side. When the NFL celebrated its first 50 years, Unitas was voted the league's best player. Retired Bears quarterback Sid Luckman said of Unitas, "He was better than me, better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone."
Unitas lived most of the final years of his life severely hobbled. Due to an elbow injury suffered during his playing career, he had only very limited use of his right hand, and could not perform any physical activity more strenuous than golf due to his artificial knees.
Source:^† In 1957 Unitas was named MVP by the Newspaper Enterprise Association.
At the age of 21 on November 20, 1954, Unitas was married by his uncle to his high school sweetheart Dorothy Hoelle; they lived in Towson and had five children before divorcing. Unitas' second wife was Sandra Lemon, whom he married on June 26, 1972; they had three children, lived in Baldwin, and remained married until Unitas' death on September 11, 2002.
On August 24, 2013, Unitas was posthumously inducted into the National Lithuanian American Hall of Fame.
On September 11, 2002, Unitas died suddenly of a heart attack while working out at the Kernan Physical Therapy Center (now The University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute) in Baltimore. After his death, many fans of the Baltimore Ravens petitioned the renaming of the Ravens' home stadium (owned by the State of Maryland) after Unitas. These requests were unsuccessful since the lucrative naming rights had already been leased by the Ravens to Buffalo-based M&T Bank. However, a statue of Unitas was erected as the centerpiece of the plaza in front of the stadium named in Unitas' honor. Large banners depicting the NFL Hall of Famer in his Baltimore Colts heyday flank the entrance to the stadium. Towson University, where Unitas was a major fund-raiser and which his children attended, named its football and lacrosse complex Johnny Unitas Stadium in recognition of both his football career and service to the university.
Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players suffered during their careers before heavy padding and other safety features became popular. Unitas himself lost almost total use of his right hand, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably disfigured from being repeatedly broken during games.
Unitas is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland.Unitas held the record for most Pro Bowl appearances (10) by a quarterback until Brett Favre broke his record in 2009.
Unitas set the original standard for most wins as a starting quarterback with 118 regular season victories (since surpassed by Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady).
Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
Unitas is 7th in all time number of regular season games won by an NFL starting quarterback with 118 wins.
Unitas is 9th in all time percentage of regular season games won by an NFL starting quarterback with a percentage of 64.5.
1987 American Football Association Semi Pro Hall of Fame
Johnny Unitas' #16 is the only number retired by the football program at the University of Louisville.
Unitas Tower, a dormitory at the University of Louisville, is named for Johnny Unitas.
A statue of Unitas sits in the north end zone of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium at the University of Louisville. It is tradition for each Cardinal player to touch the statue as he enters the field.
Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award has been awarded to the top senior quarterback of the current year in college football. The award is presented annually in Louisville.
In 1999, he was ranked No. 5 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, behind only Joe Montana among quarterbacks.
In 2004, The Sporting News ranked Unitas No. 1 among the NFL's 50 Greatest Quarterbacks, with Joe Montana at No. 2.
In 1999, ESPN's Sportscentury: 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century ranked Unitas No. 32.
Just before his death, Johnny Unitas became the community liaison for athletics in Towson, Maryland. The football stadium at Towson University was renamed Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2002. Unitas died less than a week after throwing his last pass in the grand opening of the stadium.
Set the record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass at 47 games. This record was surpassed by Drew Brees in 2012.
Set the record for consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes at 12 games. This record was surpassed by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers with 13.
Set the record for most consecutive games with at least a 120 passer rating (4); this record was later matched by Kurt Warner
For the game following his death, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning asked to wear a pair of black cleats as a tribute to Johnny's signature black boots. The league denied his request and threatened Manning with a US$25,000 fine; Manning decided not to wear them. Despite the threatened fine, Chris Redman, a Louisville alum like Unitas, and then quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, decided to pay homage by wearing the signature cleats during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 2013, a movie project was announced by The Baltimore Sun called Unitas We Stand, which will feature Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as Unitas during the 1958 NFL Championship.
19th Street in Ocean City, Maryland is named "Johnny Unitas Way" in his honor.