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For a long while on a bright, balmy afternoon in Baltimore last weekend time stood still. Johnny Unitas, the 38-year-old quarterback who has only recently returned to the starting lineup after a crippling injury, must have thought it was 1958, when he led the Colts to a 23-17 victory over the New York Giants in an overtime period in which he meticulously called 13 perfect plays for a world championship.
Johnny U. had to win that afternoon, he had to win on this one, and he did by the score of 14-3. At the kickoff the Miami Dolphins, a sound, strong team, led the Colts by half a game for their division title and they had beaten Baltimore 17-14 in Miami earlier in the season. Johnny U. had done well in that game until he was dazed throwing a block. He didn't block anyone last Saturday and he was superb and preeminently clearheaded.
He engineered two long, thoughtful drives for touchdowns in the first half and was the very model of an aging, classic drop-back quarterback. He took advantage of all the cracks in the Dolphin zone defense and at the half he had the Colts in front 14-0. The drives lasted nine minutes and 53 seconds and nine minutes and 36 seconds respectively and comprised a total of 34 errorless plays. It is very likely that no quarterback in the long history of professional football has ever been as good for as long.
Before the game, sitting in the training room under the stands, Unitas was massaging his right shoulder with a vibrator. The shoulder was covered with a white cream and he moved the vibrator back and forth over it methodically. He looked calm and relaxed, as he always does.
"I feel good," he said. "I can play. It's another game. We've been in big games before. We'll be in big games again. You do what you can. You can't do any more than that."
Unitas is an unheroic figure stripped, shoulders bowed in, skin almost deadly white, no muscles showing anywhere, not even on the right arm that has accounted for more yards and touchdowns than that of any other quarterback.
"What do you think you can do against them today?" someone asked, and Unitas looked up and smiled.
"I don't know," he said. "I'll take what they give me. They got to give you something. All you got to do is find out what it is."
Johnny U. may be the best quarterback around at receiving small gifts. The Dolphins kicked off to Baltimore, and he opened his hands. Strangely, the Dolphins came out in a 3-4 defense, one that most teams save until the end of a game when they are trying to preserve a narrow margin of victory by cutting off the long pass. It is called a "prevent defense," which may be the worst misnomer in all of sports. For Johnny U. it is an invitation.
"We were a little surprised when they tried it right away," said Bill Curry, the Colts' center. "I guess they thought Johnny would come out bombing and they wanted to take that away from him. It didn't work very well."