Coaches were an annoyance to Unitas. He'd get a little help from the press box "just to let me know about the other team's blitz tendencies," he said. "Otherwise, just leave me alone." How would he feel having a radio in his helmet, getting messages from the sideline before every play? "I'd get very deaf all of a sudden," he said. "My radio would be permanently out of service."
Unitas had the good fortune to play much of his career for Weeb Ewbank, one of the few coaches who had a great feel for the quarterback position and knew enough not to mess too much with the exceptional young man he had playing for him. But the two did have their occasional disagreements, and I reminded Unitas about a famous quote of his, one that stuck with me for years: "You don't become a real quarterback until you can tell the coach to go to hell."
"Oh, sure, I remember that," Unitas said, laughing. "I loved playing for Weeb, but sometimes I'd just ignore what he told me. Early in my career he'd try to limit where I could throw against certain people. He had tremendous respect for Night Train Lane. He'd tell me, 'Don't throw the ball in his area.' Well, hell, I wasn't going to give him the day off. So I'd throw at him, and maybe he'd pick one off, but we could do things against him, too.
"Jack Butler of the Steelers was another guy Weeb had deep respect for. We played them in an exhibition game, and Weeb told me to stay away from him. Lenny Moore said, 'Weeb, I can get open in the deep middle.' Weeb said, 'There's no way you'll get behind him.' So next time we're in the huddle, I tell Lenny, 'Damn, let's do it.' We hit the deep post for six points two times. It proved one thing to me: I could do what I wanted out there. After the game Weeb came over to me and said, 'John, I'm never going to tell you what to do again.' "
The end came in 1973,15 years after that great championship game. Unitas was 40, his body wracked by injuries, playing out the string on a hopeless San Diego Chargers team that had one major asset, a fine rookie quarterback named Dan Fouts.
"The coach, Harland Svare, asked me to work with Danny," Unitas said, "and Dan was all excited about it. Then after five or six games the offensive coach, Bob Schnelker, came over to me and said, 'The coaches had a meeting last night, and we'd rather you didn't work with him anymore.' Who knows why? Anyway, I told Fouts, and oh, boy, he was hot. So I said, 'What the hell, we'll keep doing it. They're not smart enough to know what's going on anyway.' "
I didn't want the afternoon with Unitas to end. When it was time to say goodbye, the hand he extended was crippled and twisted. "Carpal tunnel," he said. "When they operated on it, they cut a nerve. Now I can't rotate the thumb to pick up anything."
How many more things like that were there? "In '68 I tore muscles in my arm," he said. "Two nerves were dead. I lost feeling in my fingers, and I haven't completely regained it. Let's see, two knee replacements, and then the triple bypass."
That's what finally got him, the heart, the one that had been the biggest and most spirited in the game.