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johnny u

24 november 2019

When I was growing up in 1960s America – and I reckon the same is true of kids growing up in any given time and place – roles in public life and popular culture seemed filled by single, iconic exemplars. Walter Cronkite was news. Frank Sinatra was song. Lucille Ball was TV comedy. And Johnny Unitas was quarterback.

I only saw the end of Unitas' career, and only on TV. I grew up mainly reading about his exploits, especially about the phenomenal 1958 NFL championship game. I may have experienced the Colts' overtime win over the Giants on TV, at that. Or maybe not. It was my parents' first wedding anniversary, and I was in utero. But extrapolating from their later habits, it's a good bet that Fetus Me absorbed the greatest TV event in NFL history, the way other fetuses imbibe Mozart.

Tom Callahan's Johnny U, which I picked up recently in a thrift store, 13 years after its release, is as much about the 1958-59 champion Baltimore Colts as it is about their quarterback himself. We're two-thirds of the way through the book when the Colts won their second straight NFL title, which I imagine my mother watching, on her 25th birthday, while burping eight-month-old me on her lap. Johnny Unitas was only 26 himself at the time. He would live another 43 years, but in December of 1959, he was at the peak of his achievements.

The first third of Callahan's book is a conventional sport biography; the middle third is about the champion Colts; the last third is a grab-bag of Unitas and NFL anecdotes, loosely told even as to basic chronology. I think that structure, unorthodox as it may seem, makes the book more readable than a blow-by-blow account might have been. After 1959, Unitas passed for seventeen miles' worth of yardage and won 91 games, even eventually winning a Super Bowl, but it was all so much confirmation of the greatness he had already expressed.

Unitas, Callahan has to conclude, was a hard person to get to know. He grew up working class, often fairly poorly-off; his father died young. He was undoubtedly a tough kid, but his toughness expressed itself not in macho posturing or military ambitions, but in near-total obsession with American football. Relatively slow afoot for an athlete, not terribly tall, not terribly quick, but gifted with a great arm, Unitas might have become a point guard or a starting pitcher. One senses that even those take-charge roles wouldn't have satisfied his need to run the show in a team sport.

At the same time, Unitas' dedication to quarterbacking set him apart from his teammates. Callahan paints Unitas as extremely smart and possessed of great social intelligence, but not someone who admitted peers or intimate companions. His first marriage was something of a disaster; his second was to a woman a good deal younger who adored and protected him. Teammate after teammate talks about how Unitas, though unconditionally loyal to them professionally, never let them in, in any kind of emotional terms.

Unitas' most famous on-field relationship was with wide receiver Raymond Berry, another paragon of football smarts who would go on to coach a Super Bowl team. Their intimacy – exclusively a matter, as Callahan presents it, of knowing exactly where the other man and the football would be on a given play – seemed to suit them both, and resulted in many a record for yardage, receptions, and touchdowns. Unitas and Berry practiced incessantly; were all work. You could have a worse life.

Callahan quotes NFL Films pioneer Steve Sabol: Unitas "was so unromantic that he was romantic, in the end" (243). That might be the central theme of Callahan's biography. Pro football, in the 1950s and '60s, was brutal, working-class, and black-and-white (in terms of uneasy racial lines as well as the screens of our TV sets, as Callahan shows). But for all their lack of panache, those years represent a great romantic American mythos.

Callahan, Tom. Johnny U: The life and times of John Unitas. New York: Crown [Random House], 2006. GV 939 .U5U653