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Finder on the Web: Unitas set the QB gold standard

Tuesday, September 17, 2002

He was the grandaddy of them all: the Western Pennsylvania quarterbacks to follow, the pinpoint passers, the tuck-and-run guys, the comeback artists. And grandaddy wore Army-like boots. Grandaddy got cut by the Steelers. Grandaddy earned $6 a game with the semipro Bloomfield Rams, amid the glass shards and rocks and dust, and somehow still managed to catapult himself from awful Arsenal Field to awe-inspiring NFL history.

Johnny Unitas died Wednesday, of a heart attack, at age 69. Modern-day quarterback play has his hightop prints all over it, and those first steps came in Brookline and Mount Washington and Bloomfield. Let's hope when thousands celebrate his life at a Mass this morning in Baltimore, where he grew to become the Colts' king and the Arnold Palmer of professional football, that they pause to remember his Pittsburgh roots.

His father, a coal hauler and Lithuanian immigrant, died of pneumonia when Unitas was 5. Little Johnny learned to haul coal himself, shoveling 3 tons for an enriching $1.50, by the time he was 8. Helen, left to raise four children, cleaned Pittsburgh office buildings at night and worked in a bakery by day and found time for night school at Peabody. From there, she became a bookkeeper in the City Treasurer's office for two decades. Family ethic was ingrained.

This scrawny Unitas kid, No. 18 for Mount Washington's St. Justin High, attracted crowds at Moore Field along Pioneer Avenue for his ability to heave a jump pass half the field's length. He trundled off to Louisville, where he wore No. 16 and the coach on the first day mistook him for the water boy. The Steelers in 1955 drafted him in the ninth round, gave him No. 14 and brought him to training camp at St. Bonaventure College for no apparent reason.

"They had four quarterbacks," Art Rooney Jr. said. "Jimmy Finks, Ted Marchibroda, a kid named Vic Eaton and Unitas, who was a local hero. By the time they went through the drills ... Unitas wouldn't get a chance to perform. Never got in an exhibition game, either. So after practice, Unitas would work out with anybody who was around, bouncing balls off kids' heads."

One of those kids was Tim Rooney, 18 at the time, who was a camp ball boy with twin brothers John and Pat, then 16. Tim wrote an 11-page letter to his father, Steelers owner Art Rooney Sr. In it, he pleaded for the owner to veto the coaches -- who called their rookie quarterback awkward and dumb -- and keep Unitas on the roster instead of Eaton, who could also punt, if you wanted to call it that.

"None of the Rooneys can spell, you know, so you can imagine what this letter looked like," Art Jr. continued. "I think it was in pencil, too. Anyway, my dad read it and said: 'These wise guys. I pay these coaches, and these kids think they know more.' "

Former Louisville teammate Fred Zangaro picked up Unitas after he was cut and drove him to Parise's Dairy in Bloomfield, headquarters and hangout for the semipro Rams. "He was dejected," Zangaro remembered. "I said, 'Come on over with me and play with Bloomfield. Stay in shape until you get another shot.' "

They gave him No. 45. As a day job, Zangaro's brother, Dom, got him work as a Union 226 laborer with pile drivers.

"He was good. Took a lot of razzing from other teams because he was cut by the Steelers," said Chuck "Bear" Rogers, the Rams' coach, general manager and previous quarterback. "We didn't pay the players much. A couple of guys made $15 a game. One made $10. We paid Unitas $6. I'd get some of the money back, fining guys for missing practice."

Arsenal Field was sprayed with oil to keep the dust off the players and away from neighborhood laundry lines. Hightops that looked like Army issue were the footwear of the day, what with treacherous fields from there to Sharpsburg to Nanty Glo. Sometimes, they really did wear boots.

Rogers gave way at quarterback to the new guy doubling as a safety, and Unitas promptly directed the Rams to the Steel Bowl Conference championship, a game played before a few thousand folks in Arnold. Rogers wrote a letter to the woebegone Baltimore Colts, begging for a tryout for Bloomfield defensive lineman Jim Deglau of Turtle Creek and Wake Forest. So the story goes, Colts General Manager Don Kellett made an 80-cent call to Rogers: "Do you know a guy named Unitas from Pittsburgh?" Rogers replied, "Yeah, he's playing with us."

"So John and I went to Baltimore together for a tryout that spring [1956], drove down in my Buick," Delgau recalled. "There were probably 40 to 50 guys there. I know John was saying, 'Boy, I hope we make it.'

"Well, I guess you know the rest."

History.

No. 19.

Upon Unitas' passing, Joe Namath -- a Beaver Falls native who sent those Colts to their only championship-game loss in four tries, Super Bowl III -- was quoted as calling him "my football inspiration, my hero." Joe Montana of Monongahela said that under today's forgiving NFL rules, this Brookline guy "might have set records that nobody would ever break." Long before Marino and John Elway became masters of the comeback, before they were even born, Johnny U took the football world to school on the two-minute drill.

"He had it," said Zangaro, a North Sider who played kicker and linebacker with Unitas at Louisville and in Bloomfield. "Most of us all were football players. But he was exceptional."

"The others," Art Rooney Jr. added of the Steelers' Finks and Marchibroda, "became a great administrator and a great coach. The only guy of those four quarterbacks who achieved greatness where you wanted it was Unitas."

Art Rooney Jr. spins the same 1956 tale as his brother, Dan, related to the Post-Gazette's Ed Bouchette in Sunday's paper: The car pulling next to Unitas', the Chief asking who that was, then demanding they catch up to him. Except in Art Jr.'s recounting, the Chief shouts out the window: "I hope you become the greatest quarterback to ever play the game."

Whatever, Unitas' is a story worth telling the grandchildren.


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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