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Savran: There was only one Johnny U

Saturday, September 14, 2002

I'm going back on a promise today, one I made to myself when I began writing for the Post-Gazette. I promised I wouldn't indulge myself, and bore the reader with "When I was a boy ..." columns. The print version of your grandfather tripping down memory lane, telling you about how he walked 10 miles to school, through blizzards, even in May. Uphill in both directions. Nobody cares anyway, and not many believe things were all that much better or worse way back then, no matter how far back you have to go to reach way back then.

But when I was a boy ... Johnny Unitas was the man.

Johnny U was the quarterback.

When I first started following pro football, his name and his position were synonymous. There wasn't much debate about it, either. He was the antithesis of a flashy guy, yet he was a truly glamorous quarterback. Black high-top football cleats weren't all that unusual in those days. For linemen. But Unitas made a fashion statement by wearing them.

He was a white knight in black shoes. Gallant, courageous, outrageous in the way he was always on the attack.

He could throw laser beams and high, arching moon balls with equal deftness. His passes were precise, always seeming to be right where they needed to be. If the only possible spot available for a completion was the left shoulder pad, that's where it came.

And he had that touch.

Need to fire a fastball strike? He could do that. Need to loft one just over a linebacker's head and drop it softly into a running back's outstretched arms? Bull's-eye!

And it was a different game then. Unitas and his contemporaries played within the confines of the NFL's "old" rules, which meant defensive players enjoyed the latitude of doing virtually anything to receivers, short of dismemberment. And, sometimes, even that. Clotheslines were as much a part of Sundays as they were on washday Mondays across the country. You could knock 'em down all over the field.

Wideouts -- they were called ends then -- couldn't freely roam the landscape like homesteaders searching for farmland.

These ends had to fight -- literally -- to get open. And when they did, it wasn't for long. The patterns and the passes had to be precise, the timing exquisite.

Which is what made the Unitas-Raymond Berry connection. They worked endlessly and tirelessly after practice, working on timing routes so they could perform them almost by rote on Sundays.

Berry had to be perfect. He was terribly slow, and by today's standards would have been selling insurance for a living. He never would have gotten a look.

Makes you wonder if Unitas would have gotten the chance had he come into the league in the mid-1980s instead of the mid-1950s.

Even then, the Steelers didn't think he had a future. Of course, that might be a clue as to why the franchise's trophy case was empty for 40 years.

But the biggest thing about Johnny U was he just had this presence. He was this swashbuckling rogue. Kind of like, as Frank Deford put it, a Robin Hood in black high-tops.

He was a Bobby Layne-type leader, but with mounds more talent. At his unflappable best when times were worst.

When it came to the two-minute drill and pulling out a game from the shadows of certain defeat in the shadows of late Sunday afternoons, Johnny U was Kenny Stabler and John Elway before the latter was born and the former picked up a football at Alabama.

Opponents' fear was real and great if their lead was less than eight points and the football was in his hands.

Unitas would lead Berry, Lenny Moore, Jim Mutscheller, Jimmy Orr and John Mackey on relentless, inevitable marches toward your end zone.

It was a beautiful thing.

And didn't you always think, as I did and still do, that it was incredibly cool that the first initial of his last name matched that horseshoe on his helmet? Like that franchise logo was chosen because he was the quarterback, not the other way around.

Now Johnny U is gone.

How can this be? How can the first magnificent quarterback I saw play be dead?

I'm reminded of a line from a highlight film about the Steelers. In speaking about Terry Bradshaw, the late John Facenda, the fabled voice of NFL Films rumbled, "And, oh, could that young man throw a football!"

Yes he could.

But Facenda would have said the same of John Unitas. Because when I was a boy ... Johnny Unitas was the quarterback every quarterback aspired to be.

When I was a boy, Johnny U was the man.

Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 3 to 6 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM (970).

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