exhibition game was against the Philadelphia Eagles at a high school stadium in
Hershey, Pa. So, on Aug. 11, 1956, in front of a crowd of 17,575, John at last
made his NFL debut. That morning, high school freshman Ernie Accorsi caddied 18
holes to secure the $2.50 price of admission to the game. Having grown up in
Hershey, Accorsi felt no overpowering affection for the Eagles. He had been one
of 10,031 spectators at the first Colts-Eagles exhibition game, in 1954, when
Baltimore won 10-0, thereby becoming Ernie's team. The Colts had never had a
winning season, but Accorsi's hopes were high in 1956. "We were all excited
by George Shaw," he said. "He had been the rookie sensation, scrambling
all over the place. I'm sitting on the Colts' side with my best friend, and I'm
happy, they're winning [ Baltimore ultimately won 24-13], and suddenly they take
Shaw out and put in this awkward-looking number 19 with rubber bands on his
sleeves. The public address announcer pronounces his name 'YOU-knee-TASS.' What
is this? I'm 14 and I'm bitching. But a man sitting close to me says, 'Calm
down, kid. You should have seen this guy in the Blue-White game.' I did calm
down. I watched him closely. I wasn't a scout [though he would be years later,
with the Colts] or a general manager [though he would be, with the Colts,
Browns and Giants]. I was just a kid. But he threw lasers all over the
Lenny Moore, the Colts' first-round pick in 1956, from Penn State, had come to
Hershey directly from the College All-Star Game in Chicago. "I didn't know
any of the plays yet," Moore said, "so I got in only on special teams.
For most of the game I just sat on the bench and watched. I couldn't believe
what I was seeing." It seemed to Moore that absolutely nothing was illegal.
" Chuck Bednarik and another Eagles player didn't just tackle Alan Ameche
out-of-bounds. They carried him out-of-bounds and slammed him against a table
behind the bench. I said to myself, Man, I can't do this. There were guys
beating on guys like you couldn't believe. I thought, Am I strong enough to
take this kind of punishment? I had my doubts."
Sitting next to
Marchetti on the bench was a rookie tackle. "I forget where he was
from," Gino said, "but I think his name was Seals. He looked at me and
asked, 'Is it like this all the time?' I said, 'Hell, no. Wait until the season
starts.' Honest to God, I never saw him again. The middle of the night we go
back to Westminster. Next day, no Seals. Gone."
A month later the
Colts met the Eagles for a second exhibition game, in Louisville, where Unitas
had starred in college. In the interest of public relations, Ewbank started
Unitas. Then Weeb turned over the running of the game, essentially a controlled
scrimmage, to his assistant coaches. Up in the press box John's old friend and
college teammate Bob Bender kept statistics. "There had already been a
couple of dropped balls," Bender said, "when John threw about a 50-yard
pass to Lenny Moore, and Moore booted it. I jumped up and shouted, 'Goddammit!'
I'm ashamed to say I also said something derogatory about Moore's color. The
guy sitting next to me took offense, but I was just so frustrated. 'I'm sorry,'
I said, 'but how's Unitas going to prove he should be their quarterback if they
keep dropping the ball?' The guy said, 'What do you mean? They've got Shaw.' I
said, 'Hell, Shaw won't have the job long once they see what John can do.' The
guy left his seat at halftime and didn't return. It wasn't until later that I
found out it was Weeb Ewbank."
season against Chicago at Memorial Stadium, Shaw completed all but one of his
first 15 passes as the Colts beat the Bears by a touchdown. The following week
Baltimore lost at home to Detroit, and after a loss to Green Bay in Milwaukee,
the Colts brought their 1-2 record to Chicago's Wrigley Field, where everything
changed. With the Colts ahead 21-20, Shaw was driving the team across the
50-yard line when he was buried under players, and the ligaments in his right
knee popped. As Shaw was dragged off the field, Unitas ambled on.
John's first of
5,186 regular-season passes was a short throw into the right flat that Chicago
cornerback J.C. Caroline intercepted and returned 59 yards for a touchdown. The
rest of the game was a Gothic nightmare of botched handoffs and fumbles. John
and his ballcarriers were so unused to each other that, when he wasn't bumping
into them, they were crashing into him. The final score was 58-27, Bears.
"That would be enough to rattle anybody, wouldn't you think?" Berry
said. "Do you know how much that affected him? I don't think it affected
him at all." For the record, in the midst of this debacle John threw his
first official touchdown pass, 36 yards to Mutscheller.
football writer for the Sun, was a two-fisted, burly and opinionated little man
who once had to be restrained from punching Burt Lancaster in a hotel bar when
the actor made the mistake of touching Snyder's glass. "I guess it took me
a little longer than most to believe in Unitas," Snyder said. "After
that Bears mess I went to Ewbank in the locker room and kind of snorted, 'Not a
very auspicious start for Unitas.' Weeb looked at me and said, 'He went in icy
cold, but did you see how he stood up to it? Did you see how tough he is,
Cameron? He wasn't in sync with our guys, and they weren't in sync with him.
But there were a lot of missed blocks, too. I'll tell you something. I'm more
impressed with Unitas now than I was before.'"
"We're on the
bus after the game, waiting to go to Midway Airport," Mutscheller said.
"You can imagine how tense the atmosphere was on that bus. Now we're 1-3.
We just got annihilated by the Bears, and we lost Shaw in the bargain. I
happened to be sitting behind John, and a writer for the Evening Sun, Walter
Taylor. John was explaining to Taylor all of the things that went wrong,
exactly why they went wrong and exactly how he planned to correct his mistakes.
I couldn't believe how cut-and-dried and matter-of-fact it all sounded. He was
completely undismayed, perfectly confident about everything he was going to do.
That's when I thought to myself, Who is this guy?"
Packers visited Baltimore that Sunday, Weeb and John sat together at a large
desk and pared down what was already a comparatively simple offense. In a
cautious but clean performance, Unitas threw just 16 passes against Green Bay
and completed half of them, two for touchdowns, including a 43-yarder to Berry.
This time taking John's handoffs in the stomach instead of on the hip, Moore
put together two sparkling touchdown runs of 72 and 79 yards, and the Colts won
28-21. Years later, at his home in Oxford, Ohio, Ewbank said, "I taught
John quite a bit the first couple of years. I think he'd tell you that himself.
Then he started to teach me."
John and Weeb had
two full weeks at the desk to restore the playbook and prepare for the next
game, at Cleveland, an especially important stop to Ewbank. Any assistant coach
who walked away from Browns coach Paul Brown, as Weeb had, was forever encased
in icicles. This was Ewbank's first game opposite his old boss. He was frantic
to win, and John knew it. Trailing 7-0 when Cleveland fumbled on its own
35-yard line, Unitas set up a touchdown with a 34-yard quarterback keeper that
Browns fullback Ed Modzelewski said "was like watching a crazy man running
through a burning building." Marchetti's red-dog rush of Browns quarterback
Babe Parilli led to a second Colts score, and Moore contributed another 70-yard
dance in the broken field. After the Colts won, 21-7, Brown refused to shake