Football 101: No. 19, Johnny Unitas
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So much of professional football is timing, luck and finding your place. What happens to Tom Brady if he’s drafted by the Cleveland Browns? What happens to Kurt Warner if starting quarterback Trent Green doesn’t get hurt? What happens to Joe Montana if he doesn’t pair up with an offensive genius named Bill Walsh? There’s no telling, really.
In 1955, Johnny Unitas caught a bad break: He was drafted in the ninth round by the professional team he grew up around, the Pittsburgh Steelers. You would think that would be a good break, getting taken by your hometown team, but you have to understand that the Steelers were a laughingstock in 1955. The team was under constant financial strain just to make payroll. Unitas told Steve Sabol a great story about his first day there: He went to the locker room attendant and asked where he could find T-shirts, socks, athletic supporters, etc.
The attendant pointed to a big pile of white clothes in the middle of the room.
“This is professional football?” Unitas asked.
“That’s how we do it,” he was told.
But it wasn’t just that the Steelers were a ridiculous organization; they were uniquely positioned to miss what made Unitas special. On the day he was drafted, the Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph ran a photograph of the local boy in a suit, and they ran a quote from the University of Cincinnati coach, who had faced Unitas when he was at Louisville. That Cincinnati coach happened to be a guy named Sid Gillman, who would go on to more-or-less invent the modern NFL offense.
And this is what Gillman said: “Unitas is one of the top passers in the country.”
Thing is, even if the Steelers believed Gillman, that still wouldn’t have impressed them. The forward pass had not really made its way to Pittsburgh yet. The Steelers coach was a hard-rock of a man named Walter Kiesling, who had made a name for himself as a blocker in the earliest days of the NFL. He was a tackle and guard for the Duluth Eskimos, Pottsville Maroons, Chicago Cardinals and Pittsburgh Pirates, among others, and even in that rough-and-tumble time, he stood out for his toughness.
Kiesling coached as he played. The Keez liked running the fullback dive with Fran Rogel so much that, according to Tom Callahan’s excellent book, Johnny U, even before the game began, the fans would start chanting, “Hi-diddle-diddle, Rogel up the middle.”
As such, nothing about Unitas appealed to Kiesling … and he didn’t give Unitas even a single snap in training camp. In fact, he had Unitas do so little that Ted Marchibroda, the Colts’ backup quarterback, would tell Callahan: “I’m not sure Keez even knew that John was there. But to be honest with you, [starting quarterback Jim] Finks and I hardly noticed him, either. Later … neither one of us could remember a single thing John had done.”
As legend goes, the only thing Unitas ever did do for the Steelers was quarterback both sides in a Saturday scrimmage when the field was too wet and muddy to risk the health of any of the other quarterbacks. And supposedly that day Unitas was incredible, taking each team up and down the field, completing something like 34 of 35 passes. But Keez wasn’t watching, nobody cared, and he got cut the next day, which led to Unitas walking into the coach’s office and, as Unitas remembers, “I called him every name I could think of.” That, unsurprisingly, did not save his job.
There are several other wonderful stories that remain from Unitas’ short time in Pittsburgh.