He was the best. Even the great professional football players of his generation defer to his legacy. He set the bar and did for the National Football League what Tiger Woods has done for professional golf.
Johnny Unitas, who rose from humble beginnings to become arguably professional football's greatest quarterback, died recently of a heart attack. But sports giants like Johnny U. never really pass from the legendary lives they led.
Generations from now, young football fans will marvel at the monumental records a young athlete with a trademark crew cut and black, high-top shoes once broke to dazzle fans in the mid 1950s to late 1960s. Current stars have broken some of those milestones but Unitas was the first.
He was the first quarterback to pass for more than 40,000 yards in a career and the first and only to complete at least one touchdown pass in each of 47 straight games. He completed nearly 300 touchdown passes before he left football.
Unitas was the NFL's most valuable player three times, took 10 Pro Bowl trips, and won three championships with the Baltimore Colts
Ironically, one of the NFL's greatest players almost didn't make it in the big leagues. The Pittsburgh Steelers cut him during training camp in 1955 and he wound up working a construction job and playing on a semi-pro team - for $6 a game - before the Colts picked him up.
He got his break - literally - when the starting quarterback broke his leg and the other backup chose law school over football. The rest is Pro Football Hall of Fame history.
No. 19 played 18 game-defining years with the NFL as the consummate competitor who'd get his clock cleaned and be back in the game to throw the winning touchdown pass. He was a pure drop-back passer who could call plays with uncommon precision.
But like other gifted athletes of his bygone era, Unitas never lost sight of where it almost didn't begin. At his Hall induction in 1979, Unitas said, “A man never gets to this station in life without being helped, aided, shoved, pushed, and prodded to do better.”
And he reciprocated in turn, dropping by football practice sessions to goad rookie players to do better, go farther, be the best. But now his example will have to inspire. At age 69, the great Johnny Unitas left the field too soon.