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Posted: Wednesday September 11, 2002 7:43 PM

Johnny Unitas, the Hall of Fame quarterback who broke nearly every NFL passing record and won three championships with the Baltimore Colts in an 18-year career, died of a heart attack Wednesday at age 69. Here are several memories of Johnny U., quarterback for the NFL's All-Time team:

Unitas Remembered
He was one of the toughest competitors I ever knew, and overcame tremendous odds to become one of the greatest players in NFL history. It was his toughness that enabled him to stay in the pocket until the last moment before releasing the ball, and that always gave his receivers that much more time to get open. I always felt that he invented the two-minute drill. He seemed to have a clock in his head and always knew how much time he had to work with. That skill was most evident in the NFL Championship Game in 1958, when he beat the Giants in overtime in a game that captured the country's attention and helped make the NFL the premier sports league in America. He was the first of the great modern quarterbacks, and his performance set the standard for everyone who followed him at that position.
Don Shula, former Baltimore Colts head coach
It's just a tragedy. A damn shame. John was the greatest football player of all time. I would say he's the greatest thing that ever happened to the NFL. It was just a pleasure to be on his team. He was a great player and a great guy. We enjoyed each other. When they told me what happened, I was so shocked. I'm 78 years old and I've been through it all. But him dying like that. I've told people before, I always I thought John and Joe DiMaggio were the two greatest living athletes. And now they're both gone. John Unitas was John Unitas. And he didn't play in New York and he didn't play in Chicago. He played in Baltimore. That name is still magical in this town. And it's going to be even more magical now. You don't lose a guy like John Unitas and not feel it. I've had a lot of friends die. But this is really tough.
Art Donovan, former Baltimore Colts DT
It gets clearer every year. To be able to be in Baltimore as a receiver and get to play 12 years with him, I have to classify as the best break I ever got in my career. The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the football, scoring points and winning. He never thought about records and individual things, he was all business. He was the toughest competitor you could hope for.
Raymond Berry, former Baltimore Colts WR
He was always what everyone measured by at his position. He was as fundamentally sound a quarterback as there ever was. And arguably he was the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. He was a remarkable player. I don't think anybody would dispute that at the time he played, he was the dominant player. ...Someone has to be the best. And there were a lot of great ones. But as far as playing the position, no one ever played the position better than Johnny Unitas played it.
Ron Wolf, former Green Bay Packers GM
It is a great loss both personally and professionally. People talk about athletes being role models all of the time. Johnny was as great a person as you can be. I knew everything about him growing up. He played the same position as me, and I always wanted to be just like him. He was my hero. Then when I finally had a chance to meet him it was amazing how down to earth he was. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.
Dan Reeves, Atlanta Falcons head coach
This is stunning, sad, sad news. He was a good friend, my contemporary. He helped make me love this game more. It meant so much to me, my family and our team when he embraced us when we first arrived. He is on the short list of players that you can count on one hand of the greatest to ever play. His impact was enormous. He cared so much for this community that he made his home. And he fought for his fellow NFL alumni to increase their benefits and improve their lives. He went out of his way to help Chris Redman. This is a sad day for the NFL community, and an even sadder day for Baltimore. Our hearts go out to his family.
Art Modell, Baltimore Ravens owner
Not only was he the greatest quarterback who ever lived, he was one of the best friends I ever had. I will never forget how he treated a young, scared 28-year-old PR guy when he was already a legend, and that relationship grew into a wonderful friendship. What made him the greatest quarterback of all time wasn't his arm or his size, it was what was inside his stomach. I've always said the purest definition of leadership was watching Johnny Unitas get off the team bus.
Ernie Accorsi, New York Giants GM
He was the standard. He was in his era what Joe Namath was in his. He was Elway. He was Marino. He was the guy. There were other quarterbacks. A Bobby Layne. But you might have an up an down day with Bobby Layne. You never really had an up and down day with Johnny Unitas. Johnny Unitas was the man at an incredibly formative time in our game. Our game was making a great transition in the '50s and '60s, and that was his era. He was something special. Even the name: Johnny U. The fact that he was the man during that transition, he was probably as important as anybody ever was in the game of pro football.
Paul Wiggin, former Cleveland Browns DE
We had the occasion of dealing in some conflict out there on the football field from time to time. But my main memory of him is that I thought he was an absolutely great field general. If you were ahead in a game where he was the quarterback, you never knew you'd win the game until the clock ticked down to the final seconds, and it was officially over. He always had the potential to beat you. I had the greatest respect for him. ... I didn't play against Joe Montana or the quarterbacks in the modern era who they call among the greatest. I can only speak for the time that I had to play, and I think during that period of time he was certainly the greatest quarterback that I've ever seen. I thought his performance on the field was always, well, let's just say he always lived up to being Johnny Unitas. He was always on top of his game.
Jim Marshall, former Minnesota Vikings DE
I think Unitas was probably the person that was most responsible for the explosion of pro football, simply because of what happened and the drive that took place in the 1958 NFL championship Game. I think that people always looked at him as a hero, with that brush hair cut, those high shoes, and that hunched back. ... Then I think of him having been cut by the Steelers and still making it back into the league. Pittsburgh cut John to keep Jimmy Finks, and now they're both in the Hall of Fame. ... The Cowboys played against Johnny Unitas on several occasions, including Super Bowl V. He didn't finish that game because he got hurt. But I just remember him as a guy who came in and did so much for the game of pro football.
Gil Brandt, former Dallas Cowboys executive
He was simply the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. I intercepted him once, when I was with the Washington Redskins. But as far as I'm concerned, he was the best to ever put the uniform on. He had it all; leadership, fundamentals; he just knew how to play the game. And he studied the game. He was the consummate quarterback. A long time ago, when we all first started playing the game, everybody had their heroes. And if you were a quarterback, you wanted to be Johnny U. ... Johnny U. was the man for a long, long time.
Paul Krause, Hall of Fame safety

SI's Don Banks and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

 


 
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