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Sunday, November 05, 2006

Book Review: "Johnny U: The Life and Times of Johnny Unitas"

I had read an excerpt of this book in Sports Illustrated over a month ago, and the excerpt served its purpose. I went out and bought the book, and, as is my wont, finished it in about a week. It's the story of one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, the Colt great Johnny Unitas, and, also, the Baltimore (not to be confused with Indianapolis) Colts.

We have family in Baltimore, and the one thing that has struck me about their connection with sports, particularly baseball and football, is their sense of personal connection. Perhaps because Baltimore is a smaller town than Philadelphia, there is more of a chance for a connection -- living near a Colt or an Oriole -- and it's interesting to hear the septuagenarians talk with reverence about one-time Colt greats and one-time Oriole stars. My guess is that part of the difference is that many of those guys played on championship teams, while championships have been fewer and farther between in Philadelphia. Nonetheless, despite that critical difference, there's a level of warmth toward former Colts that I haven't sensed in other cities about their sports stars.

The Ravens may be in Baltimore now and, yes, they did win a Super Bowl several years ago, but nothing measures up in contemporary Baltimore still than the Colts of Johnny Unitas and the team that changed football forever with the televised victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game. That game is a watershed for Baltimore football fans, and many a Baltimorean over 55 will still talk with reverance about their Colts (younger Baltimoreans will too and will forever comment on their disdain for the Irsay family, but those of a younger generation did not witness the Unitas-led Colts, especially in their prime) as if they were still playing.

Art Donovan.

Lenny Moore.

Alan Ameche.

Jim Parker.

Raymond Berry.

Big Daddy Lipscomb.

Tom Callahan captures that sense of community and warmth in this book, and it's a good read for several reasons. One, he focuses one of the two key players on that Colts' squad (the other being defensive lineman Gino Marchetti, who many credit with helping keep the Colts together as a team -- that said, there were many great players on that squad), Unitas, and does so with a thoroughness that belies the length of the book. He captures Johnny Unitas without going into painstaking detail about every game in every season as if he had to or else risk making the book incomplete. Second, he writes with the confidence of a veteran writer and works his craft well enough that he could write a relatively short book without giving his subject short shrift. In other words, he had the confidence to paint with broader strokes than pinpoint ones.

We're all better off for it.

The book is enjoyable on many fronts. You get a sense of the brilliance and competitive nature of Unitas, who was a coach on the field (seemingly the way Peyton Manning is today for the Colts of Indianapolis). You learn (in case you forgot) that the coach in the two most important games in NFL history -- the winning coach -- was Weeb Ewbank, who mentored the Colts in '58 and the Jets in the famous upset over the Colts in the '69 Super Bowl (despite not being revered as a great coach). Callahan works the facts like an old painting master, and the result is somewhat dazzling. How great were those Colts and Giants teams? How much would they cost to put together today? How, in the days of primeval scouting methods, were those teams able to gather such great assemblages of talent?

Callahan also gives the reader a solid sense of what the different Colts stars were all about, how tough some of them were, how smart and well-prepared others were (WR Raymond Berry prepared for games with amazing thoroughness, and the only contemporary analogy I could draw in my mind is how Red Sox pitcher Curt Schilling prepares for his starts). And then, of course, there was Johnny Unitas, always competing, never forgetting details of the game, working hard after practice to hone his craft and to make his team win.

In a sense, there are a few primary paths superstars take to their greatness. Some are fortunate enough to recognize their talents, work hard and have everything fall into place for them. Others hit roadblocks at various times in their athletic careers and overcome adversity; nothing was handed to them, and for a while they had to grab others' attention through their efforts and show doubters how good they were. Manning falls into the former category, and, until he established his greatness with the Colts, Unitas fell into the latter category. As everyone knows, he was a late-round pick whom his hometown Steelers cut. By contrast, Manning had the golden-boy career at Tennessee and was one of the most coveted first-round picks of the past quarter century. That said, Manning is a great quarterback, and there are elements of his game that invoke memories of Unitas's.

The book is a fine tribute to a hard worker and great competitor, one of the best quarterbacks of all time. It's a great read, and one that you should put on your list.


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