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Golden arm taught me so much

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 12, 2002

Bart Starr, my friend said.

Johnny Unitas, said I.

At the time, I was very young, and there was much about the NFL I did not know. But I knew this. I knew about Johnny U. I knew about the high-top shoes and the flat-top hair and the No. 19 jersey. I knew about the Golden Arm.

Like a lot of people my age, I fell in love with professional football because I fell in love with the way Unitas threw a football. It was simple as that. He used the football the way Zorro used a sword, the way Robin Hood used a bow. It seemed like a rite of passage that, when you were through with them, you graduated to him.

He was a little old for me, to tell the truth. He was the quarterback of, say, the older brothers on the block. The kids my age talked about other quarterbacks, of Starr and Roman Gabriel, of Daryle Lamonica and John Hadl. We were children of the '60s. Unitas was the quarterback who made the NFL great in the '50s. Still, the pictures on the wall of my room were of Unitas, cut from magazines and glued there.

There was nothing pretty about Unitas. When he dropped back in the pocket, it was like watching an ostrich try to dance the Lambada. He had ugly hair, spindly legs and a crooked grin.

Ah, but when he threw the ball, it was poetry. From shoulder to fingertip, he was a genius.

When it comes to choosing heroes, kids often fail miserably. From the time I was a child, I have never regretted making Unitas mine.

Unitas, 69, died Wednesday. Perhaps you heard. Johnny Unitas passed. Perhaps you, too, had to explain to your children who he was and why the news affected you. He was old, of course, and he hadn't been doing well. His great, gorgeous right arm was almost useless, even for autographs.

But the memories of Unitas are right below the surface. They don't take a lot of effort to resurrect.

Why should they? It was Johnny Unitas who taught me about football.

Joe Namath, the kid in geography class said.

Johnny Unitas, said I.

It was January 1969, and I did not know much about gambling. But I knew this. The Baltimore Colts were going to take apart this mouthy kid from the Jets.

And so I bet my lunch money -- all of it, for the rest of the year -- on the Colts. I figured the other kid was a sucker. Television was different then. Everyone didn't get every game. Most people in the small south Georgia town where I grew up only had NBC, which broadcast the AFL. But a friend had an outdoor antennae, and every week, we watched the Colts disassemble one team or another.

Johnny Unitas had been hurt for most of the year, and it didn't even matter. The Colts still were rolling. And the reports said Unitas was feeling better.

You know what happened. Earl Morrall went wiggy, throwing interceptions all over the joint, missing wide open receivers, and the Jets won 16-7. Unitas came in late, but he didn't have the same magic.

Years later, I became the beat reporter for the Dolphins. When I met Don Shula, it was everything I could do to not wail: "Why didn't you start Unitas?"

To this day, to this moment, I can feel the sting of that game. I have not cared as much about a game, a team, a player since.

In the end, it was Unitas, too, who taught me about disappointment.

Dan Marino, a colleague suggested.

Johnny Unitas, said I.

The world moves on. Unitas finished his career as a Charger, for goodness sake. He was shipped out after Robert Irsay stripped the Colts for parts.

I can barely remember those days. The great arm was gone. He no longer had Ray Berry and Lennie Moore around him. Ah, but he was still a tough old cuss.

There was a game, back in his early days, when the Colts trailed the 49ers 27-7 at the half. Four weeks earlier, Unitas had broken three ribs and punctured a lung. Then he started to sizzle, and the Colts won 35-27.

He was the kid who had been too small for Notre Dame, not smart enough for the Steelers. He was the guy who made $6 a game playing semipro football. If that wasn't the stuff of legend, the way Unitas played the game was.

Whatever attention I was paying, Johnny Unitas could have taught me about competitiveness, too.

Joe Montana, an editor insisted.

Johnny Unitas, said I.

A generation embraces its own heroes. We get caught up in the moment, and we want to believe what we are seeing now is grander, more wonderful than ever. We have seen Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky and Muhammad Ali, and we believe they have dwarfed athletes who attempted their sports beforehand.

And so you watch Unitas on film, and it might be easy to think less of him. Look at the size of those corners! Look at the basic coverages! Look at him waggle downfield!

Ah, but if you ever saw him play, you didn't doubt him. He could throw it with anyone. He was tougher than anyone. He was smarter than anyone at a time it was a requirement.

I met him once, in 1987 at an NFL Players Association meeting in Los Angeles. He seemed very nice. And I managed, somehow, not to drool on his shoes. Usually, celebrity doesn't impress me. But this was Johnny U., and suddenly I was 10 years old again.

By that time, his movements were stiff, the ravages of the game taking their toll. It did not end well for Unitas, who fought until the end to get additional compensation from the NFL.

Shame on the NFL for leaving Unitas out to dry. As a business, it manufactures money, and its greatest quarterback, the man who played in the sport's two most legendary games (the '58 title game and Super Bowl III), was left to grovel.

Today, I'd rather think of Unitas in the pocket, his arm cocked, somehow managing to ignore Deacon Jones bearing down on him. Forever, that is the way I will see him.

He was my youth, and a little more of it died Wednesday. He was the best I have ever seen. I'll go further. He was the best anyone has ever seen. He taught me what a quarterback looks like.

Brett Favre, you say? Donovan McNabb? Kurt Warner? Hah.

Johnny Unitas, say I.

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