Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Football Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas was born in Pittsburgh.
Awards: Football Hall of Fame
Johnny Unitas grew up in the working class area of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He played football throughout high school and college, and went on to play professionally for the Baltimore Colts. He became recognized as the best quarterback in the National Football League after just three seasons. Unitas won three MVP awards, was selected to the Pro Bowl ten times, and compiled numerous other records throughout his career. After retirement, he began a business career, owning many restaurants and other small businesses, including real estate agencies and a sports management company. Unitas died in 2002 of a heart attack. He is known as one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
The son of Leon and Helen Unitas, John Constantine Unitas was born May 7, 1933, in the working class section of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Born of Lithuanian descent, John was the third of four Unitas children. His father owned a small coal delivery business, but he passed away when John was only five-years-old. His mother Helen stepped in immediately to take over the family business so she could continue to raise the children. Unitas came from a very hard working and humble family, which greatly contributed to his distinct character. Unitas showed strong interest in a professional football career at an early age. He was the starting quarterback for Saint Justin’s High School in Pittsburgh, and became highly recognized for his talent, being named to the All Catholic High School team in his senior year. With hopes of playing in college, Unitas struggled to find a team that would overlook his stature, standing at 6’0” tall, and weighing in at less than 140 pounds. After failing the entrance exam for the University of Pittsburgh, he took a scholarship offer at the University of Louisville. While playing quarterback for the University of Louisville, Unitas was forced to play through many injuries. He did not compile an amazing set of statistics in passing, and he did not lead the team to a winning season. Although Unitas lacked an outstanding college career, he grew two inches and gained nearly 60 pounds. This did bring some attention to him from National Football League (NFL) recruiters. While a senior at the University of Louisville, Unitas married Dorothy Jean Hoelle, his long time girlfriend. They went on to have five children together: Janice, John Constantine Jr., Robert, Christopher, and Kenneth. Shortly after graduating in 1955, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Unitas in the ninth round of the draft. This success turned out to be short lived as Unitas was cut before ever appearing in a game. The Steelers had too many quarterbacks at the time, and felt that Johnny Unitas was not intelligent enough to fulfill the job. Soon after, Unitas and his family moved to Bloomfield, New Jersey, where he worked construction as a pile driver. He also played quarterback and defensive back for the semi-professional Bloomfield Rams. These games were played on dusty sand lots and the players were only paid about six dollars a game. Even though this was a semi-professional career, Unitas did not go unnoticed. Unitas tried out for the Baltimore Colts, and was given a contract to be a back-up quarterback in 1956. Only four games into the season, Unitas was given his first chance to play, taking the place of injured quarterback George Shaw. His very first pass was an interception, which went the other way for a touchdown. His first game was rough, but throughout the rest of his first season, Unitas became comfortable and established himself as a good player. In 1957, Unitas led the NFL in touchdown passes and passing yards. By 1958, he became known as the best quarterback in the entire league. He became known for his confidence, and his ability to play well under pressure, and became the true leader that the Colts had been looking for. He led the Colts to the championship game against the New York Giants in 1958. This game became known as the greatest game ever played in the history of the NFL. The Colts, led by Unitas’ stunning overtime performance, won 23-17 over the Giants. Unitas was named the Most Valuable Player (MVP) of the championship game. This was the first nationally televised championship football game, and it turned Unitas into a very well-known and liked sports figure. Unitas led the Colts to another championship over the Giants in the following year, earning another MVP award. Over the next decade of his career, he racked up some amazing statistics and a number of records, although he did not win another championship until his victory in Super Bowl V in 1970. Unitas set an NFL record of 47 consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass, which still stands today. He was the first quarterback to compile over 40,000 passing yards in a career. In his career, he threw for a record 26 games with over 300 yards passing. Unitas was selected to ten Pro Bowls and named Player of the Decade for the 1960s. After 1970, Johnny Unitas’ career began to slip. He had been plagued with injury throughout his career and it was beginning to catch up to him. Unitas divorced his wife Dorothy and was later remarried to Sandra, having another son named Francis Joseph. Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers in 1973 where he was the back-up quarterback. He retired at the end of his first season with the Chargers, after an illustrious 18 year career. Unitas had always shown an interest in the business world, and shortly after retirement, he went into the restaurant business. He opened a restaurant in Baltimore, Maryland, called the Golden Arm. He went on to own many other restaurants and small businesses in Florida. In 1974, he became a commentator for CBS football, continuing this for five years. Unitas was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. He endorsed many projects in the 1980s including a second mortgage company, which eventually went bankrupt due to controversy. One of his final endeavors was a sports management company named Unitas Management Corporation. In 1987, he started the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation. The foundation gives out many scholarships. The foundation also gives the Golden Arm Award to the best senior quarterback in college football each year. Johnny Unitas was recognized as being the best football player in the first 50 years of the National Football League. Unitas suffered a fatal heart attack, while working out with a physical therapist on September 11, 2002, in Timonium, Maryland. He is known today as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history because of his fierce competitiveness and winning ability.
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