Johnny U. can’t be credited with single-handedly making the NFL into America’s favorite sports league. Nor was he the league’s first superstar. But he did lead his Baltimore Colts to a sudden-death overtime victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 Championship Game. And he did revolutionize the position of quarterback, helping to make the forward pass the game’s most exciting play.
Unitas played collegiately at Louisville. At that time, the Cardinals weren’t exactly in the upper echelon of college teams – they played (and often lost to) such powers as St. Bonaventure and Eastern Kentucky. Unitas played both offense and defense and proved to be quite an athlete. Still, no pro team wanted him after graduation, and he worked in construction to get a paycheck. In one of their all-time smart (lucky?) moves, the Baltimore Colts invited him to try out before the 1957 season. He made the team, and became a starter midway through that campaign. Neither the Colts nor the NFL were ever the same.
Unitas set a boatload of records, most of which have been exceeded by pass-happy offenses of recent years. One remarkable one stands, however. He threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, something Marino, Fouts, Bradshaw, Montana, Brady, and Manning have been unable to match. Unitas was named league MVP three times, and NFL.com selected him as the sixth-greatest player of all time.