When the news broke that a major convulsion had hit the Baltimore Colts on the heels of their season's miserable start (1-4)—their coach, Don McCafferty, fired, and their great quarterback, John Unitas, benched—I found myself (as a fan and erstwhile temporary last-string quarterback for four plays the year before) struck with a mounting sense of confusion and despair. It was as if the props had been knocked out from under one side of a structure as rock-ribbed and solid and familiar as one's own house, which one had come home to find tilted alarmingly, the piano collapsed against the downside wall in a welter of wires and keys.
What enhanced the shock was that the team's shattered state was so completely unexpected. As recently as 1970 the Colts had been the world champions, and last January missed the Super Bowl by one game. They were coached by a man, McCafferty, who had the best won-lost percentage in the National Football League, and they were led by a legend, Unitas, the best quarterback in the history of the game. Now, suddenly, this glorious, fabled team had a new coach, John Sandusky, McCafferty's close friend and former assistant, and a new quarterback, Marty Domres, a former Ivy League player. What on earth had happened?
I knew that there had been a change over the summer in ownership and management—the team exchanged by its former owner, Carroll Rosenbloom, the underwear tycoon, in a complicated trade for the Los Angeles Rams, who had been owned for a day or so by Robert Irsay, an air-conditioning magnate from Chicago. When he took over the Colts, Irsay hired as his general manager Joe Thomas, who has been widely credited for the composition of two expansion teams that in a remarkably short time became Super Bowl contenders—the Minnesota Vikings and the Miami Dolphins. Almost as soon as he was in control, Thomas had made a statement which I found very reassuring. "The team is a good balanced mixture of veterans and youth," he said, "and not an old club as some make it out to be. Unitas is as good a quarterback as there is in football. He's No. 1. The only problem is who will be No. 2?"
"Exactly," I thought at the time. "The club is in grand hands."
But then, after the fifth game, a loss to Dallas in which the offense was held scoreless, it was decided to bench Unitas, and I began to wonder what sort of hands were at the helm. When I heard the news I thought back on what I remembered of Unitas when I had been at the training camp in the summer of 1971—mainly his presence on the practice field. There, not only the rookies would glance across at him, stunned that they were in the same company, but just about everyone, veterans included, would look over at some point in the day, so that one caught oneself, jaw slightly agape, staring at the Main Man, which was football parlance for the superstar. Sometimes they called him that "damned Lithuanian," or occasionally "The Man," but usually the Main Man.
Those weeks Unitas was practicing the drop-back from the center's snap to test his recovery from an Achilles'-tendon accident the previous winter. Dozens of times a day he did it, taking those seven savage, quick, bustling steps on pipestem legs back into the protective pocket, his shoulders hunched forward under the high pads, the white helmet with the blue horseshoes turning first to one side, then the other, the pale small face within, the quick cock of the arm—an utterly familiar process to Baltimore people, as ingrained in them, presumably, as the taste of crab cakes from the Chesapeake.
Jim Brown once told me a story about superstars such as John Unitas. In 1964 the East Pro Bowl squad was coached by Allie Sherman. The coach met his players for the first time on a Los Angeles practice field and he clapped his hands and called out, "All right, let's have a first-team lineup over here." Sherman had no list to refer to; he was suggesting that the right players, out of all those stars, would amble forward. And that is just what happened. A team materialized with hardly a word spoken, or even a sidelong glance. The players knew where they belonged; they could evaluate themselves in some private yet universal grading system.
I thought that was extraordinary. "But suppose...I mean, suppose a great player was humble?" I asked.
"The others would wait for him," Brown replied. "The position would stay open until he walked in and filled it. Ballplayers know. Can you imagine any other quarterback, no matter who the guy was, shoving John Unitas aside to get into an All-Star lineup? No, man, no way."
Well, the point was now Unitas had been shoved aside, and when the Colts came to New York in late October with their 1-4 record to play against the Jets, I decided to go out to Shea Stadium and look at what Joe Thomas had wrought. It was announced that Marty Domres would not only start the game, but that Unitas would not play unless Domres was hurt. And, just as advertised, Domres stayed in throughout.