He was known as “Mr. Quarterback.” The Golden Arm. Or simply, Johnny U.
For 18 seasons, Johnny Unitas was the yardstick for other quarterbacks. He threw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdown passes and led the NFL in passing four times. Unitas passed for 3,099 yards during a 12-game season in 1959 and was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player in 1959, 1964 and 1967.
It is a tribute to Unitas that he held down No. 1 in Topps cards from 1959 to 1963.
Unitas was a working-class hero a decade before John Lennon wrote the song of the same name.
The crew cut. The high-top cleats. The stooped shoulders.
“Unitas was as square as the dice that hung from the rearview of his ’57 Chevy,” author Ed Gruver wrote in 2009.
But there was that pump fake that froze defenses. He was the NFL’s gunslinger of the 1960s. Unitas won his first MVP award before John Elway and Dan Marino were born, and threw 14 touchdowns to lead the Colts to Super Bowl V during the 1970 season — the same year current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Pat Mahomes’ father was born.
“I don’t know what he uses for blood, but whatever it is, I guarantee you it isn’t warm,” Hall of Fame coach Sid Gillman once said.
“Unitas unapologetically passed when the prevailing wisdom would have him run,” author Jack Gilden wrote in 2018, “and that’s the way he liked to play the game.”
After playing college football at Louisville, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round (102nd overall) by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1955 NFL draft.
He never got a chance at Pittsburgh and was infamously cut, with Steelers coach Walt Kiesling noting that “the kid’s too dumb to be a quarterback.”
“He’ll never amount to anything,” Kiesling reportedly said.
That ranks up there with Decca Records rejecting the Beatles in 1962, telling the band in a telegram that “Groups are out,” and that “four-piece groups with guitars are particularly finished.”
Like the Fab Four, Unitas would prove his critics wrong.
Unitas joined the Bloomfield Rams, a semipro team in the Steel Bowl Conference in the Pittsburgh area. He earned $3 per contest — and $6 for championship games.
He was picked up by the Colts as a free agent in 1956. From there, the legend began.
Here are some career highlights and the cards that defined Unitas’ career.
After going 3-4 after replacing George Shaw — who broke his leg in the fourth game of the 1956 season — Unitas took over as starter for good in 1957. He led the NFL in passing yards (2,550), touchdowns (24) and attempts (301). He also was named to the Pro Bowl for the first of 10 times (eight consecutive from 1957 to 1964).
It is also the year that Topps first produced a Unitas card. And while many of these cards have been submitted to PSA, it is a tough card to find in high grade. No. 138, featuring Unitas, is part of Topps’ 66-card high series that year.
Of the more than 3,500 cards of Unitas submitted for grading, there are no gem-mint cards and only eight PSA 9s. A 9 hasn’t been sold publicly since 2019.
Prices for most Unitas rookies have held fairly stead overall.
This was the year that truly introduced Unitas to pro football — and the year pro football was introduced to the American public through television.
In a Nov. 23, 1958, game against the Los Angeles Rams, Unitas wore a 9-pound corset made of aluminum and sponge rubber to protect his two cracked ribs and a collapsed lung. On the first play from scrimmage, he threw a 58-yard touchdown pass to Lenny Moore, igniting a 34-7 victory at Memorial Stadium.
On Dec. 28, 1958, the Colts and Giants met for the NFL championship at Yankee Stadium. Trailing 17-14 with 1:56 left in regulation, Unitas took the Colts from their 15-yard line and threw seven straight passes, putting Baltimore in range for Steve Myrick’s game-tying 20-yard field goal with seven seconds left in regulation. That led to the first overtime game in NFL championship history.
In OT, Unitas marched the Colts downfield and into field goal range. Shunning a handoff, Unitas threw a flare pass in the right flat to Jim Mutscheller for 9 yards to the 1-yard line.
“You have to gamble or die in this league,” Unitas told Sports Illustrated.
Unitas then handed off to Alan Ameche for a touchdown to complete the 13-play drive and give the Colts the NFL title.
It was this game, which aired on NBC, that established pro football as a popular spectator sport.
Unitas was featured on card No. 22 in the 1958 Topps football set. Like the ’57 set, finding a card of the Colts quarterback is difficult. Again, there are no PSA 10 graded cards out of more than 1,200 submissions, and only eight that earned a PSA 9 rating.
The two panel card shows off the famous Unitas flat top haircut, and the action shot is distant but common for the times, with Unitas throwing the football.
And only 72 cards graded out at PSA 8, making this card tougher to find in high grade.
The 1958 Topps set has more visual appeal than the ’57 version, as Unitas is depicted with his right arm cocked behind his head, ready to throw. It is a much clearer shot than the 1957 card, and the orange background makes the photo look much nicer.
Unitas finished the year leading the NFL in touchdowns again with 19, and he threw for 2,007 yards. He placed second in MVP voting in the AP and UPI contests, trailing only Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown.
This is the first year that Topps placed Unitas as card No. 1 in its football set, an honor that would continue for five straight years.
It is also the first Topps base card to refer to Unitas as “Johnny,” as opposed to John.
Unitas had his first MVP season in 1959, leading the NFL in attempts (367), completions (193), passing yards (2,899) and touchdowns (32). He passed for an average of 241.6 yards per game and had at least three touchdown passes in seven of the Colts’ 12 regular-season games.
On Nov. 1, Unitas had season-high stats with four touchdowns and 397 yards against the Browns, but the Colts lost 38-31. Still, Unitas was able to guide the Colts to a 9-3 record and a second consecutive NFL championship, with a two-touchdown performance in a 31-16 victory against the Giants in a return title match.
The 1959 Topps card of Unitas is even harder to find in high grade than is first two cards. There are no gem-mint examples and PSA has only graded five as Mint 9. There are 84 8s.
In 1960, Unitas had the first of his three 3,000-plus yard passing seasons. The Colts, weirdly placed geographically in the NFL’s Western Conference, had the misfortune of competing against rivals Green Bay and Chicago. The Packers would win NFL titles in 1961 and 1962, while the Bears would take the crown in 1963.
Football during the 1960s was rough, with quarterbacks taking hard hits. Unitas, who was prone to holding the football until the last second, was particularly vulnerable.
In a 1960s game against Chicago, blood surged from Unitas’ face after a vicious blitz by the Bears. When the Colts’ trainer tried to remove him from the game, Unitas spat blood on the ground and said, “If you take me out, I’ll kill you.”
Unitas stuffed mud up his nose to stop the bleeding and went back to work.
Unitas won his second MVP award in 1964 as the Colts rolled to a 12-2 regular-season record. He received 32 out of a possible 40 points in the voting to outdistance Brown.
However, Brown and the Cleveland Browns got the last laugh, stunning the favored Colts 27-0 in the NFL championship game at Cleveland’s Municipal Stadium. Unitas was held to 95 yards passing and threw a pair of interceptions.
Unitas’ 1964 football card was featured on the inaugural Philadelphia Gum Card series. In 1964, the upstart company pulled off a surprise by obtaining the licensing rights to produce NFL trading cards, ending the stranglehold Topps had held since 1956.
Philadelphia alphabetized teams and players in its first set, so while the Colts held the first 13 slots, Unitas was card No. 12, and his first name was listed as “John.”
Just like his Topps cards, Unitas’ 1964 Philadelphia card was a tough one to find in high grades. None of the more than 1,000 cards submitted to PSA have been awarded a 10 grade, and there are only 57 that achieved a PSA 9.
Unitas had another solid year in 1967, and the Colts entered the last game of the season with an 11-0-2 record. Baltimore’s only blemishes heading into the final game of the regular season were back-to-back ties with the Los Angeles Rams and the Minnesota Vikings. Interestingly, the Rams also had a pair of ties the same two weeks as the Colts—a 24-24 deadlock on Oct. 15 against Baltimore, and a 28-28 tie against Washington the following week.
The Colts and Rams met in the regular-season finale. Baltimore would advance to the playoffs with a win or tie, while the Rams needed a win to advance with a head-to-head tiebreaker advantage. Los Angeles prevailed 34-10, but that did not diminish what was another MVP season for Unitas.
He threw for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns and was an overwhelming choice for MVP honors.
The 1967 season was also the last year that Philadelphia would issue NFL sets. Unitas, at card No. 23, was pictured in a closely cropped sideways view, as if he were looking downfield to throw.
Typically, Unitas’ card is tough to find in high grade. There are no PSA 10 cards out of nearly 500 submissions, and there are only three verified PSA 9s.
Unitas was injured for most of the 1968 season, when Earl Morrall stepped in and led Baltimore to a 15-1 record and a berth in Super Bowl III. The Colts were stunned by the AFL’s New York Jets 16-7, but fans at the Orange Bowl were treated to Unitas trotting onto the field in the third quarter to try and rally Baltimore.
Unitas went 11-for-24 for 110 yards and led the Colts on their only scoring drive in the fourth quarter and Baltimore recovered an onside kick. But after Unitas led the Colts to the Jets’ 19, he threw four straight incompletions. That sealed the Jets’ win in one of the biggest upsets in pro sports.
Unitas’ last great season was 1970, when he led the Colts to a 11-2-1 record and a berth in Super Bowl V. He threw for 2,213 yards and 14 touchdowns and had three fourth-quarter comebacks to give him 34 for his career. In the AFC Championship Game against the Oakland Raiders, Unitas threw for 245 yards and a touchdown, including a 68-yard touchdown pass to Ray Perkins that sealed the Colts’ 27-17 victory.
Unitas would spend two more seasons in Baltimore. In the AFC title game against Miami on Jan. 2, 1972, he threw for 224 yards but was intercepted three times and sacked three times. He’s pictured on a 1972 Topps playoff card that portrays what was difficult afternoon for the 38-year-old quarterback.
In 1973, Unitas ended his 18-year career with the San Diego Chargers. It was odd to see lightning bolts on his helmets, rather than the familiar horseshoe logo of the Colts. Unitas threw three touchdowns and was intercepted seven times. He appeared as a Charger on his last card as an active player but also had a card in the 1974 set.
While it was a bit sad to his career end in less than ideal circumstances, it doesn’t diminish the body of work that Unitas gave during his football career. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1979.
Unitas died on Sept. 11, 2002. He was 69.