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The Best There Ever Was
Frank Deford
September 23, 2002
For the author—a Baltimore native and future sportswriter—the Colts' quarterback was more than a boyhood hero. He was an inspiration for the entire city
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September 23, 2002

The Best There Ever Was

For the author—a Baltimore native and future sportswriter—the Colts' quarterback was more than a boyhood hero. He was an inspiration for the entire city

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But then, there couldn't have been a mother's son anywhere who knew exactly what Unitas had in store for us. Marchetti, apparently, was the first one to understand. It was a couple of weeks later, and he was lying on the training table when the equipment manager, Fred Schubach, wondered out loud when Shaw might come back Marchetti raised up a bit and said, "It doesn't matter. Unitas is the quarterback now."

Evidently all the other Colts nodded; they'd just been waiting for someone to dare express what they were beginning to sense. Marchetti had fought in the Battle of the Bulge when he was a teenager and thus, apparently, had developed a keen appreciation for things larger than life.

Of course, no matter who John Constantine Unitas had played football for, it would've been Katie-bar-the-door. But perhaps never has greatness found such a fitting address. It wasn't only that Baltimore had such an inferiority complex, an awareness that all that the stuck-up outlanders knew of our fair city was that we had crabs and white marble steps in profusion and a dandy red-light district, the Block. Since H.L. Mencken (he who had declared, "I hate all sports as rabidly as a person who likes sports hates common sense") had died, the most famous Baltimorean was a stripper, Blaze Starr. The city hadn't had a winner since the Old Orioles of a century past. For that matter, until very recently Baltimore hadn't even had a major league team in the 1900s. Before the Colts arrived in 1947, the best athlete in town was a woman duckpin bowler named Toots Barger. Football? The biggest games in Baltimore had been when Johns Hopkins took on Susquehanna or Franklin & Marshall at homecoming.

But no mother ever took her children to her breast as old Bawlmer, Merlin (as we pronounced it), embraced the Colts. It wasn't just that they played on Sundays and thus finally made us "big league" in the eyes of the rest of a republic that was rapidly becoming coaxial-cabled together. No, the Colts were just folks, all around town, at crab feasts and bull roasts and what-have-you. Why, I knew I could go a few blocks to Moses' Sunoco station on York Road and see a bunch of Colts there, hanging out, kicking tires. Had I had a good enough fake I.D., I could've even gotten into Sweeney's, up Greenmount Avenue, and drunk beer with them. The Colts were real people, so we loved them even more as they went on their merry way to becoming champions of the world.

With each passing game, though, Unitas elevated above the others until, on Dec. 28,1958, he entered the pantheon of gods. 'Twas then, of course, in Yankee Stadium itself, that he led us from behind to an overtime victory over the despised New Yorkers in the Greatest Game Ever Played. Yet even as we deified him, we still had it on the best authority that he remained one of the boys. Just because he was quarterback, he wasn't some glamour-puss.

Certainly he didn't look the part of a hero. This is how his teammate Alex Hawkins (box, opposite page) described Unitas when Hawkins first saw him in the locker room: "Here was a total mystery. [Unitas] was from Pennsylvania, but he looked so much like a Mississippi farmhand that I looked around for a mule. He had stooped shoulders, a chicken breast, thin bowed legs and long, dangling arms with crooked, mangled fingers."

Unitas didn't even have a quarterback's name. All by himself he redrew the profile of the quarterback. Always, before, it had been men of Old Stock who qualified to lead the pros. Baugh and Albert and Van Brocklin and Layne and Graham. (All right, Luck-man was a Jew, but he was schooled in the WASP-y Ivy League.) Unitas was some hardscrabble Lithuanian, so what he did made a difference, because even if we'd never met a Lithuanian before, we knew that he was as smart a sonuvabitch as he was tough. Dammit, he was our Lithuanian.

They didn't have coaches with headphones and Polaroids and fax machines then, sitting on high, telling quarterbacks what plays to call. In those halcyon days, quarterbacks were field generals, not field lieutenants. And there was Unitas after he called a play (and probably checked off and called another play when he saw what the ruffians across the line were up to), shuffling back into the pocket, unfazed by the violent turbulence all around him, standing there in his hightops, waiting, looking, poised. I never saw war, so that is still my vision of manhood: Unitas standing courageously in the pocket, his left arm flung out in a diagonal to the upper deck, his right cocked for the business of passing, down amidst the mortals. Lock and load.

There, to Berry at the sideline. Or Moore. Or Jimmy Orr real long. Lenny Lyles. John Mackey. Hawkins. Ameche out of the back-field. My boyhood memory tells me Johnny U never threw an incompletion, let alone an interception, after that single debut mistake. Spoilsports who keep the numbers dispute that recollection, but they also assure me that he threw touchdown passes in 47 straight games. That figure has been threatened less seriously than even DiMaggio's sacred 56. Yes, I know there've been wonderful quarterbacks since Unitas hung up his hightops. I admit I'm prejudiced. But the best quarterback ever? The best player? Let me put it this way: If there were one game scheduled, Earth versus the Klingons, with the fate of the universe on the line, any person with his wits about him would have Johnny U calling the signals in the huddle, up under the center, back in the pocket.

I've always wondered how people in olden times connected back to their childhoods. After all, we have hooks with the past. When most of us from the 20th century reminisce about growing up, we right away remember the songs and the athletes of any particular moment. Right?

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