With 11 minutes left in the fourth quarter last Sunday afternoon, the fog had become so thick in San Francisco's Kezar Stadium that Kermit Alexander, perhaps mistaking the ball for one of the sea gulls that drifted low over the field, could not locate a Baltimore kickoff. The Colts recovered on the 49ers' 17. Leading 28-7 at the time, Baltimore Coach Don Shula decided to give his starting quarterback, Earl Morrall, a bit of rest and send in a substitute.
"We wanted to let him [the sub] have a little work so he could get some experience," Shula said after Baltimore had won its fifth straight game by beating San Francisco 42-14. "I guess that seems funny, huh? Well I guarantee that's the first time such a thing ever happened to this man."
What was funny about it was that the substitute was Johnny Unitas. After sitting out four league games with a sore elbow, all of which the Colts had won easily under Morrall, Unitas finally was allowed to throw his first pass of the year. Naturally, it went for a touchdown.
Until that moment, the Colts had been relying totally on Morrall, one of the NFL's most peripatetic players. Six weeks ago he was still with the New York Giants, but he knew better than to put away his suitcase with all the stickers on it. Having already been traded by San Francisco (where he was a No. 1 draft choice in 1956), Pittsburgh and Detroit, Morrall's sensitivity to such matters was keen enough that he could feel the Giants were about to put him on the road, although he wasn't sure of his destination. "You get to where you can tell," he says. "I had asked Allie Sherman about it before I moved my family from Detroit to Connecticut for the season, and he had assured me he was sticking with his quarterbacks. But I played very little in the exhibition games, and the coaches didn't pay much attention to me. So I figured I was going somewhere. In fact, I'd heard the Giants had a deal all wrapped up to trade me to St. Louis in 1967. But Tom Kennedy [another New York quarterback] got hurt, I stayed with the Giants."
Morrall had given the Giants a good year in 1965, throwing 22 touchdown passes for a club that finished with a 7-7 record and a tie for second place in the old Eastern Conference. The following season he broke his right wrist and had to miss half the games. "I knew the Giants were going to trade for Fran Tarkenton in 1967," he says. "I didn't like it, but I really didn't blame them. They couldn't be certain how my wrist would heal. Then when they brought Gary Wood back from New Orleans this year, it was a tip I might be traveling again."
Several NFL clubs could have used a competent, experienced quarterback like Morrall. However, the club he may never have suspected would be interested in him was Baltimore. The Colts had gone into training camp with Unitas backed up by two youngsters. Jim Ward and Terry Southall. Unitas had a painful right elbow, but that is not an uncommon ailment among veteran quarterbacks. "We intended to give Ward most of the work in the preseason," says Shula. "Then Ward injured a kae and we had to get into the market. I remembered Morrall from the three years I spent with him at Detroit while I was an assistant coach there. I saw him have some fantastic days for the Lions. Once he beat Baltimore in the last 13 seconds. That sort of thing stays in your mind. I knew he was cool and a hard worker. We went after him."
The Colts landed Morrall by trading Butch Wilson, who had been their second-string tight end for six seasons. Morrall arrived in Baltimore one evening at twilight and was on the field that same night working with Shula. "There was so much to learn," says Morrall. " Baltimore's system is vastly more complicated than any I'd been used to."
Morrall was forced to do his classroom studies on the field. Almost as soon as he put on a Baltimore uniform, the Colts went to Dallas for their final exhibition game. Unitas was twisting his body to the left and throwing a pass to his right under a hard rush when a flash of pain ripped the sore elbow. Morrall finished that game and all the rest until last Sunday. In that time he has thrown 12 touchdown passes, two of them against the 49ers.
"It's a myth to think this is a one-man team," says Shula. "John gives us a spark, gives us leadership, is the greatest. But people shouldn't think we can't win without him. This is a tough, solid team. We have a good defense, good receivers, good pass blocking and our running game is going well. We have balance this year. We knew Earl would need a strong running game to help him with his passing, so we've put more emphasis on it. It would be a bad rap to say John hasn't used the running game enough. I've seen games when he only threw 14 passes. But Earl has kept working at the run, and his passing is the better for it."
In workouts last week in San Francisco, the 35-year-old Unitas lobbed a few short passes during warmup drills, but he restricted himself to running plays in the dummy scrimmages. His right elbow was wrapped in a plastic bag tightly taped to hold body heat. While Morrall operated the team in practice, Unitas played an easy game of catch but did not risk his arm throwing deep.