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Life, unfortunately, does not begin for John Unitas at 40. Forty for him means he is an old quarterback. It does not, however, mean he is over the hill. The Ram game was the first of the 1973 exhibition schedule in which he forced his old bones through four full quarters. He passed 31 times and completed 18 for 286 yards and two touchdowns; five of his passes were dropped. All told, he looked a better man than John Hadl or James Harris, the two quarterbacks who played for Los Angeles; the Rams' hero was Jim Bertelsen, who rushed for 97 yards and set up touchdowns with punt returns of 22 and 50 yards.
In a brilliant minute and eight seconds at the end of the second quarter Unitas took the Chargers 87 yards for a touchdown, passing on every down, using the clock as parsimoniously as he did in his salad days. In the closing minutes of the game he almost duplicated that bravura performance, but Dave Williams fumbled after catching a pass on the Los Angeles 14.
Unitas threw every pass in the repertoire and threw them impeccably. He lofted soft lead passes to ends flying down the sideline, and they dropped in as if sighted. For his first touchdown he drilled a hard, sharp ball to Williams, cutting straight across the field for a 28-yard reception. Later in the game, under a massive rush, Unitas moved up through a collapsing pocket, then found Bob Thomas in the clear for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
Sadly, Unitas will not end his career in a blaze of glory, because the Chargers do not offer him the canvas upon which to paint the picture of which he is capable. He will finish a loser, but he will lose with grace, just as he did on this night, and the Chargers will come closer to being winners because of him.
"We'll be better," he said after the game. "We need a little more work on our timing. But we've got time for work."
He thought about that for a minute and smiled. "I hope I've got time," he said. "I think I have."