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Johnny Unitas: a quiet hero.


Former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas is a legend in football history. Now, 16 years after leaving professional football, the great Johnny U. is still winning at the game of life, despite osteoarthritis.

It's a bright, sunny, late summer day in Baltimore's Memorial Stadium, and the staff is busily cleaning up the remains of last night's Orioles baseball game. Men with blowing machines quickly clear the trash from the stadium seats, while others go behind, sweeping up what is left. Out on the field, the grass is being carefully tended by another crew. Orioles coaches, public relations people and other staff appear and disappear, absorbed in the business of another day. Baseball is the subject on everyone's mind.

Yet, when football legend Johnny Unitas strolls into Memorial Stadium, everyone notices. He seems at home here in the stadium where he made so many of his famous touchdown passes. But he is so unassuming that he seems almost surprised when, one by one, people quietly stop by and ask for his autograph.

A stadium sweeper, time-worn by months and years of carrying away spillage left by exuberant fans, catches sight of Unitas and leans on his broom a moment, watching the former quarterback. Quietly he ambles over and extends a hand to his hero. "Johnny U.!" he exclaims, and the awe he feels in this man's presence is apparent.

Baltimore hasn't forgotten Johnny Unitas and neither has America.

It's been the better part of two decades since Johnny U. completed one of his famous passes as a Baltimore Colt. But ask football fans to name the greatest pro quarterbacks in history and the name Johnny Unitas is still one of the first to spring to their lips.

A National Hero

Perhaps Johnny Unitas is best known for a game early in his pro football career that has since been dubbed "The Greatest Football Game Ever Played."

It was 1958, and the National Football League championship was up for grabs between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. As the end of the fourth quarter was nearing, New York was leading 17-14, and it looked as if the Giants would take the championship. Then, with seven seconds left on the stadium clock, the Colts kicked a field goal to tie the score.

"Prior to that time, there had been no such thing as an overtime period in a game," says Unitas. "If two teams tied, they shared the championship. But the late commissioner Bert Bell had recently installed an overtime period called `sudden death,' in which the first team that scores in overtime wins the game. We were fortunate to be the first team to play in a game like that."

Fortunate, indeed. That afternoon, in pro football's first sudden death period, Johnny Unitas called 13 perfect plays that led his team to the touchdown that made the Baltimore Colts world champions. It was a moment that went down in history.

"Television was just catching on at that time," Unitas remembers. "So that game was the first nationally televised pro football championship game. It was watched by more spectators than any other sporting event in the world up until that time. That game was the one that pushed the NFL into the prominence it has in America right now."

It was also the game that vaulted Johnny Unitas into the public spotlight and made him a star. After that, people started stopping him in the street to shake hands or ask for his autograph. He became a national hero, but a quiet, unassuming hero who never seemed quite sure what all the fuss was about.

"I don't feel I should be treated any differently than anybody else," says Unitas. "If people feel that I did something they really enjoyed and that puts me in the category of `celebrity,' that's fine, but I never really concern myself with that type of thing."

The Colts went on to defend their championship in 1959, becoming one of the few teams ever to win the world championship two years in a row. And for the next decade, Unitas led the Baltimore Colts to victory after victory, fueled by an extraordinary passing ability that earned him the nickname "The Golden Arm."

Life After the Gridiron

When Johnny U. finally hung up his cleats for good in 1973, he was 40 years old and had enjoyed an unusually long and successful career for a quarterback. But, as he puts it, "When it's time to quit, it's time to quit."

Still, it would seem that the transition to the "real world" would be hard for someone whose "office" had been a football field for so many years. Not really, though, according to Unitas. "I've always been in some type of business, in addition to playing football," he says. "When I first started playing in 1956, the salaries were very minimal. All of us worked at another job in the morning and came to practice around noon.

"So when I quit playing ball, I just started devoting more of my time to business," he explains. "And I didn't have to quit football `cold turkey' because I was a sportscaster for CBS during football season for five years."

In those post-football years, Unitas worked as a manufacturer's representative for a variety of companies and served as a spokesperson for a trucking corporation. In addition, he owned a restaurant in Baltimore, aptly named The Golden Arm, which he sold only last year.

Today, Unitas puts his considerable energy into the computer company, National Circuits, that he bought with a partner five years ago. "Our company builds and sells high technology electronic circuit boards for the computer industry," he explains. "I spend most of my time knocking on doors and talking to customers. I basically deal with people, which I enjoy."

At 56, John -- as he is now known -- walks a little slower than he did in his football days, due to the osteoarthritis that has settled in his knees, back and fingers. It's a condition many former football players are all too familiar with, due to the abuse their joints are subjected to during their years on the football field.

Traumatic arthritis is a form of osteoarthritis that results from injuries, and football players are particularly likely to get it in their knees and backs. The cartilage and other tissues in their joints break down after repeated abuse, resulting in pain and difficulty moving.

"I don't have a severe form of arthritis," Unitas says. "I could probably play racquetball or something like that if I really wanted to, but it would mean pushing the limits of my knees and leaving them very sore and stiff. I definitely can't run."

Unitas' fingers tell the story of many injuries in the athlete's career. Many of the joints are enlarged and swollen; one is almost twice its normal size due to an injury that never healed properly. Arthritis is in all of them.

But, like most football players, Unitas is not one to dwell on pain or even to take much notice of it. "I've always had a pretty high threshold for pain, so it never really got me down," he says. "You just have to live with it and put it out of your mind -- you have to go on with your life and keep your mind on other things."

Even for people who are severely affected by arthritis, Unitas says, "No matter what your limitations, you have to look at what you can do, not at what you can't. And whatever you can do, go out and do it well. If you're breathing, you're living."

Unitas certainly takes his own advice to heart. He's not able to participate in vigorous sports activities anymore, but there are plenty of other less strenuous pastimes he enjoys fully.

"I like just working outside in my yard -- cutting grass, chopping wood and that kind of stuff," he says. "When I have time, I play golf and do a little fishing and hunting."

Is he still a big football fan? "I don't watch a lot of pro football anymore," he says. "I do try to keep up with the players and coaches I know, and I watch a little college ball, but I've never really been much of a spectator. If I can't participate in something, I feel like there's a lot more I can do with my time -- even if it's just tossing around a football with my kids in the backyard."

Memorial Stadium is clean and deserted now; the grass is manicured and the stands are emptied and silent, awaiting the next crush of baseball fans. But if you listen carefully, you can almost hear the echo of long-ago football fans packed into the Colt's home stadium, screaming and cheering for the great Johnny U. as he makes yet another perfect touchdown pass.

No, America hasn't forgotten Johnny Unitas, and it probably won't for a long, long time.

PHOTO : His outstanding performance as quarterback for the Baltimores in the 50s, 60s and 70s made

PHOTO : Johnny Unitas (number 19) a household name in America.
COPYRIGHT 1989 Arthritis Foundation, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1989 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Witter, Dianne C.
Publication:Arthritis Today
Article Type:Biography
Date:Sep 1, 1989
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