John Unitas has a tennis elbow. It is his right elbow. The tendon has been torn away from the bone and the elbow aches steadily, like a sore tooth. When Unitas is forced to snap off a hard throw the pain becomes intense, as though somebody had jabbed a live nerve.
Against a good Philadelphia Eagle team that was leading the Baltimore Colts by six points in the second quarter last Sunday, Unitas called a pattern that sent Willie Richardson, his flanker, on a sharply angled route from right to left across the deep defense of the Eagles. Throwing through a light rain, Unitas fired the ball on a flat, hard trajectory to Richardson, who had broken free momentarily. Richardson caught it for a first down on the Philadelphia 27-yard line, but that was not the real point. Unitas had executed the play with the same untrammeled motion that has given him four lifetime records in his spectacular 11-year career, and the only people among the 60-odd thousand at Franklin Field who knew how much pain it caused Unitas were his teammates on the Colts and Johnny U.
Two plays later it was third and nine and Unitas sent Richardson on the same crossing pattern, made the same hard, accurate and painful throw, and it was first and goal for the Colts on the Philadelphia two. Jerry Hill carried the ball in for a touchdown, which put Baltimore ahead to stay 7-6. Eventually the score grew to 38-6 and the Colts won their second game of the season, landing in a three-way tie with Los Angeles and San Francisco for first place in the difficult Coastal Division.
This is a sound, strong Baltimore team. Richardson, a tall, skinny man of 27 who has little to show for the four years he has spent with the Colts, was playing in place of the injured Jimmy Orr. He performed with remarkable �lan, catching 11 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns and making life extraordinarily miserable for Aaron Martin, the Philadelphia corner back who had most but not all of the responsibility for covering him. The defense, against the Eagles, was superb, denying the Philadelphia team, which had scored 35 points against Washington the week before, a single touchdown. Don Shinnick, in his 11th year as a corner linebacker, broke the league interception record for linebackers by picking off two of the harried Norm Snead's passes, and Bob Boyd, bald as an egg after spending seven years in the Colt secondary, remained the most successful thief among active defensive backs by picking off two more for a career total of 46. The Colts, despite their years, their aches, their shiny heads, obviously played very well as a team.
But as the Philadelphia fans straggled slowly and unhappily out of Franklin Field, none of them had much to say about Richardson, Shinnick or Boyd. They talked only about Johnny U. and, even while suffering the torments of their own defeat, they spoke of him with the kind of undiluted respect and grudging affection all sports fans seem to have for a superhero.
For Unitas, this was a better game than any he had played last year. Although he hurt all afternoon, the pain was confined only to his elbow. During the 1966 season, he had a sore shoulder as well. The ripping shots he was able to get off Sunday were physically impossible for him a year ago.
The man most capable of judging how well Unitas is throwing is Raymond Berry, who has been catching his passes for 11 years.
"He's as good as ever," Berry said after the game as he sliced away the tape bandaging his ankles. "He could always throw any kind of pass if he wasn't hurt and he can again. I know his elbow hurts him but you can't tell it when he has to fire one. It comes in as hard and straight as it always did. He can throw short, long, hard, soft, on either side of you to keep it away from a defensive back and he can throw it away when he has to. Once today I broke in over the middle in the end zone and the kid on me—Nettles, I think—was right there. Johnny threw it behind us and over the end zone."
Unitas has retained his remarkable ability despite the fact that he can no longer work the long hours he used to, practicing his accuracy with Berry and his other receivers.
"I got a little ballpoint pen I keep with me at practice," Berry said. "I tape some adhesive on my pads and make a note of each pattern I work with each passer. How many patterns would you think I worked with Johnny last week?"