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The Unitas Factor
Tom Callahan
August 07, 2006
Every young NFL quarterback owes a debt to Johnny U, who in 1956 showed how a skinny rookie could take charge of a middling team and lay the foundation for a champion
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August 07, 2006

The Unitas Factor

Every young NFL quarterback owes a debt to Johnny U, who in 1956 showed how a skinny rookie could take charge of a middling team and lay the foundation for a champion

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The leader, the captain, the man, was a defensive end with brilliantined black hair, Gino Marchetti, who, in the locker room before the games, paced and smoked like an expectant bear. He fought the Germans on the Siegfried Line at 18, before he went to the University of San Francisco. Gino's uniform number was 89. Six lockers down--the Colts always dressed in sequence--sat Don Joyce (number 83), who was a professional wrestler in the off-season, as was Eugene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb (76), seven spaces farther along. Lipscomb, who never went to college, learned some of his football at Camp Pendleton in the Marine Corps but most of it from Marchetti. Another Marine, Artie Donovan (70), leaned over at his locker taping magazines to his shins for body armor: Newsweek on the left leg, TIME on the right, appropriately.

Sitting beside Artie was guard Alex Sandusky, number 68 ("Nobody had the guts to wear 69," Sandusky said primly), a 16th-round draft choice from Clarion (Pa.) State Teachers College who would be sent into his first pro game in the middle of the second quarter and start every game after that but one, for 13 years. A postman's son, Sandusky had been an end when he boarded the plane that brought him from the Pittsburgh airport to the Baltimore Colts. But during the ride he met Notre Dame end Jim (Bucky) Mutscheller, yet another ex-Marine, and changed positions. Alex figured Notre Dame trumped Clarion State in any competition for employment. Also, Mutscheller, coming directly from Korea, had a look in his eyes that could bore a hole in a vault.

L.G. Dupre and Bert Rechichar (WRETCH-it-char, like gargling broken teeth), numbers 45 and 44, sat side by side. As almost nobody knew, the L.G. stood for Louis George. A happy-go-lucky halfback from Baylor, he came to be known as Long Gone Dupre. Next to Night Train (Lane) in Detroit, Long Gone was the best nickname in the NFL. "Back in Texas City," Dupre told Gene Gregston of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, "my daddy would take my brothers and me around from saloon to saloon, pair us off against each other in bare-knuckle boxing matches and pass the hat. Made a pretty good dollar too. That's why, when the fights break out today, I'm the only one in the league throwing jabs." Rechichar, an equally ready and even more willing defensive back from Belle Vernon, Pa., preferred to be called simply Forty-four. In fact, he insisted on it. In the further cause of simplicity he addressed everyone he was still speaking to by one name: Peas. On the road Rechichar required his roommates to keep the shower running in the bathroom whenever he was out. If one of the coaches happened to drop by the room, he was to be told, "Forty-four is taking a shower."

Also cheek-by-jowl were numbers 36 and 35, middle linebacker Bill Pellington and fullback Alan (the Horse) Ameche, the NFL's Rookie of the Year in 1955. Pellington, a Navy vet and an ironworker who helped build the Tappan Zee Bridge in New York, was the cruelest person and most wanton player on the team. He was known for gritty feats such as playing for an extended time with a broken arm. The truth was, long after the fracture had healed, he kept the cast for purposes of knocking opponents unconscious.

"Bill Pellington," Colts halfback and end Alex Hawkins said, "should have been thrown out of every game he ever played, and most of the practices." In contrast Ameche was the smartest, nicest and most civilized member of the team. He was a bridge player, an opera buff and a distant relative of the movie actor who portrayed Alexander Graham Bell, Don Ameche.

Just a few more players down sat the rookie quarterback, Johnny Unitas. "At Westminster, Maryland, where we trained," Donovan said, "I liked to come to work early. We had an assistant trainer named Dimitri Spassoff, a Bulgarian who used to rub my feet and tell me humorous stories. I looked across the room, and here was this new guy, this skinny little scarecrow, with a hot pack on his right shoulder. 'Who the f--- is that?' I said. 'That's the new quarterback,' Spassoff said. 'We got him from Pittsburgh, I think.' 'And he's already got a bum shoulder?' I said. 'Christ, he'll never make it.'" John's new number was 19. Though his college number, 16, was available, he took the jersey that was handed him and said nothing. John was the third Colt to wear 19, and the last.

At the end of the row sat number 14, quarterback George Shaw, the star of the team, the first player picked in the 1955 draft and runner-up for NFL Rookie of the Year, whose $18,000 salary was by far the highest in the room. After working out for coach Weeb Ewbank, Unitas had signed a one-year contract for $7,000.

The first things they noticed about each other were their hands. During a high school game in Paris, Texas, Raymond Berry had badly broken the little finger of his left hand, and it had been dislocated so many times since then that it no longer worked with the others. Unitas had accidentally put a .38 slug through the middle finger of his right hand while cleaning a pistol as a teenager. The first time Unitas and Berry shook hands, a connection was made. It is not too strong to say that they became a team within a team. "Raymond's hands caught my attention even before we met," John told Cameron Snyder of the Baltimore Sun. "All through the offensive meetings he would be squeezing a pink blob of [ Silly Putty] in each fist, and he carried a football with him everywhere he went, even to meals. You know, Raymond didn't catch that many passes as a rookie starter the year before [13 in 12 games, none for touchdowns], but he looked like a receiver to me."

Berry was a details man, past the point of eccentricity. He searched and searched for just the right pair of football pants, and when he found them, he never entrusted them to the equipment men again. Raymond insisted on washing and ironing the pants himself. To him, the fit was crucial. Berry carried a bathroom scale with him on the road, to monitor his weight precisely. He scouted the sunlight at various times of day. He had a pile of football shoes with all manner of cleats, including an especially uncomfortable pair with longer mud cleats over just the balls of the feet. As nearsighted as Mr. Magoo, Berry wore horn-rimmed glasses off the field and contact lenses on it. They made him look startled. But he could catch the football.

From the day they met, Unitas and Berry regularly stayed after practice to pass and catch. "When Weeb saw what we were doing," Berry said, "he told me quietly, 'Keep working with this Unitas.' Looking back, I wonder if Weeb didn't already know."

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