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John Constantine Unitas (May 7, 1933 – September 11, 2002), nicknamed "Johnny U" and "The Golden Arm", was an American football player in the National Football League (NFL). He spent the majority of his career playing for the Baltimore Colts. He was a record-setting quarterback, and the NFL's most valuable player in 1959, 1964, and 1967. For 52 years he held the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass (which he set between 1956 and 1960). Unitas was the early example of the modern era marquee quarterback with a strong passing game, media fanfare, and widespread popularity. He has been consistently listed as one of the greatest NFL players of all time.

Unitas was inducted into the American Football Association's Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987.

Early life

John Constantine Unitas was born in Pittsburgh, he grew up in the Mount Washington neighborhood. When Unitas was five years old, his father died leaving the young boy to be raised by his mother. Attending St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played halfback and quarterback. After high school, he looked for an opportunity to play college football.

The University of Louisville offered him the chance and Unitas left home to play for the Cardinals.

Personal life

At the age of 21 on November 20, 1954, Unitas married his high school sweetheart Dorothy Hoelle; they lived in Towson and had five children before divorcing. Unitas' second wife was Sandra Lemon, whom he married on June 26, 1972; they had three children, lived in Baldwin, and remained married until Unitas' death on September 11, 2002.

Unitas lived most of the final years of his life severely hobbled. Due to an elbow injury suffered during his playing career, he had only very limited use of his right hand, and could not perform any physical activity more strenuous than golf due to his artificial knees.

On August 24, 2013, Unitas was posthumously inducted into the National Lithuanian American Hall of Fame.


Johnny Unitas grave
The gravesite of Johnny Unitas in Timonium, Maryland

On September 11, 2002, Unitas died after suffering a heart attack while working out at the Kernan Physical Therapy Center (now The University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute) in Baltimore. A statue of Unitas was erected as the centerpiece of the plaza in front of the stadium named in Unitas' honor. Large banners depicting the NFL Hall of Famer in his Baltimore Colts heyday flank the entrance to the stadium. Towson University, where Unitas was a major fund-raiser and which his children attended, named its football and lacrosse complex Johnny Unitas Stadium in recognition of both his football career and service to the university.

Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players suffered during their careers before heavy padding and other safety features became popular. Unitas himself lost almost total use of his right hand, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably disfigured from being repeatedly broken during games.

Unitas is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland.


Football signed by Johnny Unitas (1991.84)
A football signed by Johnny Unitas that was given to President Gerald Ford
  • Unitas held the record for most Pro Bowl appearances (10) by a quarterback until Brett Favre broke his record in 2009.
  • Unitas set the original standard for most wins as a starting quarterback with 118 regular season victories (since surpassed by Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, John Elway, Brett Favre, Peyton Manning, and Tom Brady).
  • Unitas was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.
  • Unitas is 7th in all time number of regular season games won by an NFL starting quarterback with 118 wins.
  • Unitas is 9th in all time percentage of regular season games won by an NFL starting quarterback with a percentage of 64.5.
  • Unitas's #16 is the only number retired by the football program at the University of Louisville.
  • Unitas Tower, a dormitory at the University of Louisville, is named for Johnny Unitas.
  • A statue of Unitas sits in the north end zone of Cardinal Stadium at the University of Louisville. It is tradition for each Cardinal player to touch the statue as he enters the field.
  • Since 1987, the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award has been awarded to the top senior quarterback of the current year in college football. The award is presented annually in Louisville.
  • In 1999, he was ranked No. 5 on The Sporting News list of the 100 Greatest Football Players, behind only Joe Montana among quarterbacks.
  • In 2004, The Sporting News ranked Unitas No. 1 among the NFL's 50 Greatest Quarterbacks, with Joe Montana at No. 2.
  • In 1999, ESPN's Sportscentury: 50 Greatest Athletes of the 20th Century ranked Unitas No. 32.
  • Just before his death, Johnny Unitas became the community liaison for athletics in Towson, Maryland. The football stadium at Towson University was renamed Johnny Unitas Stadium in 2002. Unitas died less than a week after throwing his last pass in the grand opening of the stadium.
  • Set the record for consecutive games with at least one touchdown pass at 47 games. This record was surpassed by Drew Brees in 2012.
Johnny Unitas (11282591584)
Bust of Johnny Unitas
  • Set the record for consecutive games with at least two touchdown passes at 12 games. This record was surpassed by Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, and Aaron Rodgers with 13.
  • Set the record for most consecutive games with at least a 120 passer rating (4); this record was later matched by Kurt Warner
  • For the game following his death, Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning asked to wear a pair of black cleats as a tribute to Johnny's signature black boots. The league denied his request and threatened Manning with a US$25,000 fine; Manning decided not to wear them. Despite the threatened fine, Chris Redman, a Louisville alum like Unitas, and then quarterback of the Baltimore Ravens, decided to pay homage by wearing the signature cleats during a game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
  • In 2013, a movie project was announced by The Baltimore Sun called Unitas We Stand, which will feature Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco as Unitas during the 1958 NFL Championship.
  • 19th Street in Ocean City, Maryland is named "Johnny Unitas Way" in his honor.
  • Johnny Unitas Stadium on the campus of Towson University in Towson, Maryland, home of the Towson Tigers football and Towson Tigers men's lacrosse teams is named in his honor.

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