Tom Callahan's biography on a legendary quarterback offers inspiration even for the non-sports fan.
By Joseph Kellard
On Super Bowl Sunday, Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts will once again don the same white helmet with blue horseshoes that another star quarterback wore in a championship game nearly 50 years ago. I draw this timely parallel simply to recommend a biography that matches its hype.
Tom Callahan’s Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas is conversational-style account of the legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback, based on interviews with Unitas’s teammates, opponents, friends and relatives, and captures the essence of a man many consider the greatest to ever play his position.
Sports fans or anyone eager to encounter an admirable individual should read “Johnny U,” if only for the examples of his famous “cool,” both on and off the field, and particularly while under pressure — a product of his quiet confidence. One of the Hall of Famer’s college coaches from Louisville, on a team that fell to 1-8 one season, said of Unitas: “Losing didn’t kill his self-confidence … He was the most confident person — confident in his own ability — that I ever met, that I think anyone ever met.”
In part, Unitas’s confidence and abilities grew out of his dedication to the game, a quality that Callahan highlights. “Every week, John sat and watched both [televised games: the Bears and the Browns],” a Louisville teammate recalled. “‘C’mon, it’s a beautiful day, let’s go out,’ I’d say. ‘No, I have to see the games.’ ‘You mean to tell me that after practicing all week, after sitting through all the meetings, after playing every single down of every single game, you still haven’t had enough football?’ ‘Nope.’ None of the rest of us knew exactly what we wanted to be. He did.”
Unitas’s renowned work ethic was embodied best in his relationship with his top receiver, Raymond Berry. Even after team practices the duo routinely worked together on mastering their pass-and-catch precision and on two-minute drills that proved invaluable in big spots.
“Johnny U” also shines a light on both Unitas’s exceptional football smarts and leadership, exemplified by an ability to tap his vast memory bank to call plays on his own like no other quarterback before him.
“You couldn’t outthink Unitas,” said Sam Huff, a New York Giants defenseman. “When you thought run, he passed. When you thought pass, he ran. When you thought conventional, he was unconventional. When you tried thinking in reverse, he double-reversed. It made me dizzy ... We were one of the greatest defensive teams ever put together ... But we didn’t have a defense for Unitas.”
A critique of “Johnny U” that I encountered is that Callahan failed to dig deeper and answer more questions about Unitas’s private and family life. Certainly another outstanding biography, When Pride Still Mattered, David Maraniss’s take on legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi, is heavy on such details. Yet that book still managed to detour from a road most modern biographers like to travel. A road on which all sorts of non-essential, often-unsubstantiated claims about a subject are made and blow up in an alleged attempt to make the subject more “human,” or the biography more “balanced.” But dig deeper into the biographer’s motives and you’ll often find he was determined to find feet of clay on his admirable or heroic subject.
Instead, Callahan opted to focus on what is most relevant about his subject, or any individual’s life: his productive abilities, his profession, his career. This value primarily drives our purpose in life and can, above all else, reveal a man’s core. In “Johnny U,” Callahan shows us a man who essentially loved his work and performed it exceedingly well and with shining confidence, particularly on the grandest stages.
In 1958, Unitas and the Colts defeated Huff and the Giants in the NFL championship, later dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” In this classic, first-ever overtime battle, Unitas commanded a two-minute, game-tying march downfield and an 80-yard, game-winning drive that became signature innovations of his quarterback play. The game generated unprecedented television ratings that catapulted the pro game in popularity on a par with Major League Baseball.
Immediately after winning his first pro championship, Unitas simply
turned and walked off the field. “You weren’t going to see him jump up and down,” said one teammate. “He didn’t have to do that. It was one of the best things about him.”
* This review was originally written and posted January 31, 2007. I did some minor editing to the original.