Johnny Unitas is one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game, right there with Tom Brady, Joe Montana, and others. He set records, led the Baltimore Colts to three championships, and was a big part of the NFL’s growth across America. As expected, he was enshrined in Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton.
Some of you may even know he started his career by being cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
I recently read the book My 75 Years with the Pittsburgh Steelers and the NFL by Dan Rooney and he brings up this experience. The facts in this article are my Cliff-notes version based on what was written in the book.
To start with, Unitas came from the Pittsburgh area, attending St. Justin’s, a small catholic high school. It was his performance against Rooney’s North Catholic where Rooney first witnessed Unitas’ ability. Unitas was skinny and awkward, but he could throw the ball.
He was not heavily recruited out of high school because many schools thought he was too small. Eventually, Louisville was interested and that’s where he ended up, starting a good portion of his freshman year.
Unfortunately, Louisville decided to deemphasize football the following year – this was 1951 – and Louisville had a small squad, forcing many to play both ways. In addition to being the quarterback, he also played defense and was very good. His senior year was marred by injury, a hairline fracture of his ankle, which prompted him to wear high-top cleats, which he wore for the rest of his career.
When it came to the NFL draft in 1955, Unitas was under the radar, but Rooney liked Unitas and knew he had talent. When he was available in the ninth round, the Steelers selected him.
At the time, Pittsburgh had three good quarterbacks: Jim Finks, Vic Eaton, and Ted Marchibroda. Therefore, Unitas had an uphill climb to make the team. Furthermore, Steeler head coach Walt Kiesling was against the Steelers picking Unitas, thinking he was too dumb.
When training camp came, Kiesling ignored him. Unitas did what he had to, learning the plays and preparing well, but Kiesling never gave him any snaps in practice. Rooney’s younger brothers would catch passes from him after practice and were very impressed, thinking he was the best quarterback in camp. They urged Dan, who was only 23-years old, to talk to Kiesling, but to no avail.
At the end of camp, Kiesling cut Unitas, making it difficult to catch on with another team. Unitas let Kiesling have it when he was cut, saying he could understand if he screwed up in camp, but he was never given a chance. Instead, Unitas ended up working in a steel mill that year and playing semi-pro ball on the side.
The following year, the Colts brought him to camp, as they were looking for someone to back up prized youngster George Shaw. Shaw was the starter, but was injured a few games in, missing the rest of the season. In came Johnny Unitas and it was his job from that point on. Shaw never quite made it and bounced around, starting sporadically and was out of the game by 1963, playing his last year in the AFL.
I have always knew Unitas was cut by the Steelers, but never knew why. Now I know.