Sports Outside the Beltway

Unitas Defined Quarterback Leadership

Len Pasquarelli believes Johnny Unitas might have been the best leader among all the great quarterbacks.

In the NFL, history has demonstrated, great leaders come in all sizes.

The three things they all have in common?

“A big heart, even bigger balls, and the biggest [work ethic],” said Art Donovan, the Hall of Fame defensive tackle from the old Baltimore Colts, and a man who played with some of the zaniest characters and many of the most elite high-character guys of his era. “That’s what sets the great leaders apart in any walk of life. In football, you’d better have ‘em all if you want guys to follow your lead.”

That triumvirate of convergent rare traits, of course, is most typically defined by, but hardly limited to, the quarterback position. In a sampling of dozens of football people over the past week — players, coaches, scouts and general managers, past and present — talking about critical leadership qualities inevitably led at some point in those conversations to a discussion of quarterbacks.

It is, by nature, the position that most demands the ability to lead and that also provides the most opportunities for doing so. Not surprisingly, the names most often mentioned as great quarterback leaders over a span of NFL eras — Joe Montana, Otto Graham, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, Bobby Layne, Norm Van Brocklin — were the names one might expect to be raised in any such forum.

And so was the man most often cited: Johnny Unitas.

In his excellent new biography, “Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas,” which will be available in bookstores next month, author Tom Callahan deconstructs myth. He instead crafts the story of a man with relatively modest physical attributes but who was also imbued with natural leadership traits. Unitas might not have been the most charismatic figure, but as Donovan, his former Colts teammate noted, he possessed all three things you need to have others follow you.

This is something impossible to quantify. Certainly, you’d think 1963 Heisman winner and Naval Academy graduate Roger Staubach would be in the mix.

Related Stories:
Recent Stories:

It’s Unitas for me because of sustained superior performance in an era when there was little special protection for quarterbacks.

Smart, tough, wiley, and mean. No one, not even coaches like Shula and Eubanks, fu**ed with him.

He also was driven primarily by a blue-collar devotion to his craft, not money or notoriety.

He was not a particularly warm and fuzzy personality with the press or the fans, but he was generally civil. Above all, he was respected.

My assessment goes against my heart, which would like to give the nod to Otto Graham. I was a Browns fan since 1948, and he was my childhood hero. But I think Unitas played in an era in which there was far more competition and in which defenses and offenses became far more sophisticated. Unitas “kept up” and excelled throughout his career.

PS. I was listening on the radio to the game when Shaw was hurt and Unitas replaced him. He threw an interception right off the bat, and the announcers were not too kind. They thought Shaw’s injury was the end of the world for the lowly Colts. How wrong they were.

Posted by vnjagvet | August 31, 2006 | 03:57 pm | Permalink

RSS feed for these comments.

Comments are Closed


Visitors Since Feb. 4, 2003

All original content copyright 2003-2008 by OTB Media. All rights reserved.