Unitas became synonymous with toughness on the field, for stepping up in the teeth of the rush and delivering the ball. "I often thought that sometimes he'd hold the ball one count longer than he had to," Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Merlin Olsen once said, "just so he could take the hit and laugh in your face."
"I kept a picture of Johnny U. over my bed," Namath once said. "To me he meant one thing—toughness."
How did Unitas change the game? He was the antithesis of the highly drafted, highly publicized young quarterback. He developed a swagger, a willingness to gamble. He showed that anyone with basic skills could beat the odds if he wanted to succeed badly enough and was willing to work.
He's 65 now, vice president of sales for a computer electronics firm and chairman of Unitas Management Corp., a sports management firm, and the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation, which awards scholarships. On a sunny day in May we sat on the porch that overlooks his 19 acres of pastureland in Baldwin, Md., and I mentioned my favorite quote of his: "You don't arrive as a quarterback until you can tell the coach to go to hell."
"Once you've got [the game] down, you've got a better feel on the field than a coach has," Unitas said. "My first year I was learning. By the end of the second year it was like a complete revelation, like a cloud had moved away. I'd get a feel for how to move the defense into coverages that I wanted. I'd keep a chart on every defensive back, on his tendencies.
"Weeb Ewbank, our coach, used to be scared to death of [Detroit Lions Hall of Fame cornerback] Night Train Lane. He'd tell me to stay away from him. I thought, Hell, I'm not going to give him the day off. But Weeb was the perfect coach for me because he'd always get players' input."
How about the system today with, for instance, the radio receivers that have become standard in quarterbacks' helmets so coaches can send in plays from the sidelines? "I'd be very deaf," said Unitas, a three-time league MVP and 10-time Pro Bowl player who still ranks third in career touchdown passes. "Mine would be out of service."
Unitas thought for a moment. "One of the greatest compliments I've ever had," he said, "came against the Green Bay Packers on a fourth-and-one in a tight game. Before we huddled, I was checking the line of scrimmage to see where the ball was, and I heard one of their guys say to Henry Jordan, their defensive tackle, 'What do you think he's going to do?' Jordan said, 'Damned if I know. I've been playing against him for five years, and I haven't figured his ass out yet.' That's what quarterbacks today are missing."
The hit had been a brutal one, helmet to rib cage, and it had come just as New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath released the ball. Namath was stretched out on the turf of Denver's Mile High Stadium for a couple of minutes. This was September 1969, a little more than eight months after the Jets had stunned the Colts in Super Bowl III. After the game, no one was more worried about Namath's condition than Dave Costa, the Broncos' defensive tackle who had delivered the blow.
As Namath was getting his sore ribs treated, Costa stood in the New York locker room in civvies, just outside the trainers' room, practically wringing his hands. "Is he all right?" he asked. "Honest to god, I didn't mean to hurt him."