It is a little like watching a Neanderthal man walking down Fifth Avenue. He wears the high-top, black leather shoes he has sported since he came into the league and he wears them with distinction. The only other San Diego Charger in high-tops is Dave Costa, the defensive tackle the club got from Denver after he complained when Coach John Ralston tried to change his stance. " John Unitas is the chairman of the board of the high-top society," Costa says. "I'm only a member."
Costa's high-tops are made by Adidas, however. They are light blue and have the distinctive three white stripes on the side. Unitas' practice shoes are cracked and fissured with age, and if he plays much longer he may have to have his new pairs bench made. They're not turning out high-tops like they used to.
" Jim Thorpe left me his shoes," Unitas says, smiling. "They keep my ankles together."
A bigger problem for Unitas, now in his 18th year as an NFL quarterback and in his 41st year to heaven, is keeping himself together. When he's in fine fettle, as he was last Friday night at the Coliseum in the Chargers' 30-17 loss to Los Angeles, he is as impressive as ever. There is nothing wrong with his arm; the passes are released in a hurry and they home in on receivers as accurately as of yore. More surprisingly, his feet are still nimble and, when he shuffles back into position to throw, are quicker than those of Wayne Clark, 26, and Dan Fouts, 22, the other San Diego quarterbacks.
Most of the passes Unitas threw in practice the week of the Rams' game were short or mid-range, but not because he cannot throw long. "That's the way the offense is geared," he said one afternoon. He was lying on a water bed procured for him by Coach Harland Svare to ease the pain in his back. Twice during training camp at the University of California at Irvine his sacroiliac has gone out, the result of a bad knee that forced him into an unnatural posture while throwing.
"My arm is as good as ever," he said, "but I have to practice long passes. You don't get sharp if you don't work on them. You can't throw long well all at once when you get a receiver open deep. You have to have spent time working on the patterns."
That morning, after the two-hour regular practice, Unitas had asked Wide Receivers Gary Garrison and Chuck Dicus to work on patterns with him. They spent 30 minutes in the special drill and Unitas threw well.
Earlier that day there had been flare-ups between offensive and defensive linemen, even in dummy scrimmage, when they weren't really hitting. "They're getting a bit testy," Svare said. "Maybe next year we'll cut back on how much time we spend in camp."
Unitas brought his quiet leadership from Baltimore to San Diego. He is a solitary man. After the morning practices, in the free time between meetings, he stayed alone in his room, lying on his water bed, or strolled by himself around the campus. He was not surly or unapproachable; often he talked to the young quarterbacks about the techniques of, say, hitting a tight end on a crossing pattern, but he did not seek out company.
Yet on this particular day, with tempers high, he changed the whole feeling of the practice. He called a bootleg play, which requires the quarterback to carry the ball himself on a wide sweep, a play unthinkable in a game, given the age and physical condition of Johnny U. The defense was caught by surprise as he flitted across the goal line. Once in the end zone, he jumped high in the air, spiked the ball and laughed. The whole team broke up and the tension disappeared.