Listed among the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster cuts in 1955 was a 6’1,” 194 pound rookie quarterback from the University of Louisville. While the move seemed insignificant at the time, it was one that would haunt the Steelers for the next 18 years, since that kid from Louisville turned out to be Johnny Unitas. “Johnny U” would go on to break virtually every NFL passing record for his new team, the Baltimore Colts.
Unitas came into the league in a decade when the passing game was gaining more prominence in NFL offenses. The man famous for his crew cut and black high tops possessed the perfect skill set for this new era. He had a strong and accurate arm, with exceptional touch on deep throws. He was also a natural leader who was at his best in pressure situations, an attribute that would define his career more than any other.
In his first season with the Colts in 1956, Unitas started seven games. The numbers were solid for a first-year quarterback (1,498 yards, 9 touchdowns, 74.0 QB rating), but it was his next season that would begin a stretch of greatness continuing into the early 1970s. In 1957, Unitas led the league in passing yards (2,550), touchdowns (24) and QB rating (88.0). The first-time Pro Bowler also led the Colts to a 7-5 record, their first winning season in franchise history.
The next two years would elevate Unitas to greatest player in the game status. In 1958, “Johnny U” earned his first All-Pro selection, leading the NFL with 19 touchdowns and a 90.0 QB rating. More importantly, he led the Colts to their first NFL championship with a thrilling 23-17 overtime win over the New York Giants. In what many consider to be the greatest game in NFL history, Unitas completed 26 of 40 passes for 349 yards and a touchdown.
Unitas followed up his stellar 1958 campaign with an even better one in 1959, as the Hall of Famer led the NFL with 2,899 yards and 32 touchdowns, and posted a passer rating of 92.0 en route to his first career MVP. On December 27, he put an exclamation mark on an outstanding season by leading the Colts to their second straight NFL title, once again beating the Giants. Facing a 9-7 deficit entering the fourth quarter, Baltimore outscored New York 24-7 in the final frame to post a 31-16 victory. Unitas completed 18 of 29 passes for 264 yards, two passing touchdowns and one rushing touchdown in the game.
“Johnny U” entered the next decade on top of the world, as the league MVP on the two-time defending champions. In 1960, he led the NFL in touchdowns for the fourth straight year with 25, and in yards for the third time in four years with 3,099. As a team, the Colts would hover around the .500 mark from 1960-63, but Unitas was a Pro Bowler each season, leading the NFL in passing yards once again with a career-high 3,481 in 1963.
In 1964, Baltimore returned to the NFL Championship Game for the first time in five years. The 12-2 Colts dominated their competition all season long, leading the league in points scored and fewest points allowed. Unitas won his second MVP, throwing for 2,824 yards, 19 touchdowns and only six interceptions. His passer rating of 96.4 would end up as the second highest of his career. Unfortunately, the Colts’ season ended on a low note, losing to the Cleveland Browns 27-0 in the title game played in Cleveland.
Unitas had another outstanding season in 1965, throwing for 2,530 yards and 23 touchdowns while posting a league and career-high passer rating of 97.4. The Colts returned to the postseason for the second straight year, but unfortunately it would be without Unitas, who injured his knee against the Chicago Bears in week 12. Without their All-Pro quarterback, the Colts lost a divisional playoff game to Vince Lombardi’s Green Bay Packers, who would go on to win their third of five NFL titles in the decade.
In 1967, Unitas won his third career MVP with 3,428 yards, 20 touchdowns and a league-leading 58.5 completion percentage. The year would mark the Hall of Famer’s 10th and final Pro Bowl, and his fifth and final All-Pro selection. The 11-1-2 Colts would miss out on a third straight playoff appearance, however, as they lost a tiebreaker to the Los Angeles Rams.
The next season Unitas suffered an elbow injury in the Colts’ final preseason game, forcing him to miss most of the regular season. Riding the league’s top defense and a strong season from backup quarterback Earl Morrall, the Colts finished 13-1 and made it to Super Bowl III. A less than 100-percent Unitas made an appearance in the title game, leading the Colts to their only touchdown of the game, but it wasn’t enough to beat Joe Namath’s New York Jets, who became the first AFL team to win a Super Bowl.
After an uneven 1969 in which Unitas had 12 touchdowns and 20 interceptions, and the Colts finished 7-5, 1970 would provide the last great moment in the career of “Johnny U.” The 37-year-old quarterback led Baltimore back to the Super Bowl, where they defeated the Dallas Cowboys 16-13, the Colts’ third championship under Unitas.
The legendary quarterback played two more seasons with Baltimore, and one with the San Diego Chargers before retiring after the 1973 season. Unitas left as the NFL’s all-time leader in completions (2,830), attempts (5,186), passing yards (40,239) and passing touchdowns (290). As the ultimate testament to his greatness, the award for college football’s top senior quarterback was named the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm award in 1987.