Book Review: Johnny U (2006)

Every kid has (or ought to have) heroes. For me, Johnny Unitas was one of the first. Unitas first achieved fame as the quarterback for the NFL’s Baltimore Colts when I was too young to know football was, helping lead the Colts to the 1958 NFL championship in a game that is still called “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” But by the time I was old enough to know what football was, there was no doubt who my favorite player was. Unitas ranked right up there with the astronauts.

That’s why I picked up Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas with such anticipation when I saw it. It was about time, I thought, that someone write a Unitas biography. Yet the book, written by award-winning sportswriter Tom Callahan, epitomizes sports biographies and, more important, what I dislike about sports biographies. Perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to be far too heavy on the sports and far too light on the biography.

The book clearly has potential, given the significant number of interviews Callahan conducted (although his recurring reference to himself as “the sportswriter,” such as in “Shula told the sportswriter,” goes beyond annoying). But in the end the book is far more about the times than the life of Johnny U. Callahan revisits the 1958 championship game play by play, with a more detailed recounting of some of the more significant plays that led to the sudden death victory. He introduces us to plenty of the stars during the time the Colts were amongst the NFL elite. While they talk about Unitas, we learn as much about them and their backgrounds as we do Unitas. And while it’s kind of fun to read about Raymond Berry and Gino Marchetti and the tale of John Mackey is sad, what we learn about Unitas tends to be his skills, his attitude, his reserve and his toughness on the football field.

For example, while we meet his mother, brothers and sisters early on and get a fair recounting of Unitas’ childhood and college years, the first Mrs. Unitas is mentioned early on and disappears entirely until virtually the end of the book. In fact, it isn’t until the final two chapters that we really meet any of the family Unitas started as an adult. Even then, it is almost exclusively his family with his second wife. From his beginning in the NFL until some some of his post-career business failures, we don’t really learn much about Unitas other than what he did on the practice field and in the stadiums and, as noted, how his teammates viewed him. Granted, we learn why Unitas wore the black hightops that, along with his crewcut, set him off from virtually all other football players in the 1960s and 1970s. We learn the respect he earned from teammates and opponents for his fairness, toughness, and determination. We learn that when Unitas won a Corvette for being the most valuable player in the 1958 championhip game, he traded it in for a station wagon. This is all consistent with what his fans probably already knew or, if they didn’t, could have picked up in one of the sports magazines of the era.

This might be all well and good if a glimpse of how football changed during the Johnny Unitas years is your primary focus. But if you’re interested in learning about the man himself, it doesn’t cut it. Admittedly, I may be asking too much from a biography that is, after all, about a sports figure. But I wanted to learn not only about Johnny Unitas the football player but the man outside the stadium lights. What did he do in the off-season? What things outside football did he enjoy? How did he and his family cope or attempt to cope with his fame given Baltimore’s adoration of its Colts? How did the failure of his first marriage and whatever caused it affect his playing or vice versa? I’m not looking for dirt or gossip. I simply want to know about his life outside the spotlight. None of this information is really here. As a result, the book tends to make Unitas one dimensional, that he was a football player and little or nothing else.

In fairness to Callahan, he admits in the preface that the book isn’t just about Unitas. Although Johnny U begins and ends with the title subject, Callhan writes that the book “is as much about a certain time as a single player. It is less about a specific place in the country than a place where the whole country used to be.” As such, the book is more a biography of the Baltimore Colts and professional football in general during the Unitas years. And in that respect Callahan succeeds in educating us about how the NFL was different then and the internal dynamics of the Colts. He also does a fine job of exploring various social issues that existed at the time, such as the color line in pro football.

In the end, as a sports biography, the book could make almost any starting lineup. Drop the modifier “sports,” though, and Johnny U underperforms.

When next he saw Unitas, [sportswriter Cameron] Syder said dryly, “I got your [1965 autobiography] and I have only one question. Did you write it?””Hell,” Unitas said, “I didn’t even read it.” 

Tom Callahan, Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas

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