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Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas Paperback – August 28, 2007

4.4 out of 5 stars 108 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In a book that is "as much about a certain time as a single player," journalist Callahan (In Search of Tiger) offers not only a biography of one of professional football's early legends but also a look at the nature of the sport in his day. He charts the career path of Unitas from an undersized and unheralded Pennsylvania quarterback prospect to his glory days leading the Baltimore Colts to three championships from 1958 to 1972. In narrating Unitas's story of tryouts, cuts, timely phone calls and chance scouting encounters, Callahan reveals as much about Unitas's character and ambition as he does about the machinations of a talent system very different from today's. He also relies heavily on extended comments from a range of Unitas's coaches, friends and fellow players: as teammate Raymond Berry notes, Unitas "had a certain blend of humility and self-confidence that was unusual, to say the least." Quotes like this help the book feel more like listening to a group of old-guard players reminiscing around the back table than reading a strictly structured biography. The result is light, conversational and bound to fascinate anyone interested in Unitas or the hardscrabble, blue-collar era of football he dominated. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


“If there were a Mount Rushmore of pro football, the craggy face of Unitas would be one of the four figures on it. Tom Callahan is the perfect writer to tell the real story of Johnny U, and he does it with deep reporting and clear writing, cracking a myth etched in stone and bringing back to vivid life the real man.” —David Maraniss, author of When Pride Still Mattered: A Life of Vince Lombardi

“I’ll be honest. I’ve never read a football book written by somebody else that made me wish my own name was on it—until now. Johnny U is a classic.” —Dan Jenkins, author of Semi-Tough

“Magnificent . . . Tom Callahan takes us through legendary times, bringing to life the history of professional football and the great players who were the essence of gridiron competition.” —Bill Walsh, member, NFL Hall of Fame; two-time NFL Coach of the Year

“A wonderfully human portrait of a legendary sportsman . . . takes us back to a team, a town, and a time that should never be forgotten.” —Jeffrey Marx, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Season of Life

“As elegant, tough, tender, and unforgettable as Johnny U himself . . . This is Hall of Fame stuff.” —Dave Kindred, author of Sound and Fury

“As a young dyed-in-the-wool Baltimore Colts fan, I watched Johnny U ascend from a mere mortal to a football god. Tom Callahan gives us a full-textured account, as exciting as sudden-death overtime.” —Barry Levinson, writer and director of Diner

“Destined to be acknowledged a classic . . . By page forty you’re saying to yourself, ‘I don’t want this to end.’” —Dick Stockton, longtime broadcaster, Fox Sports

From the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: Three Rivers Press; Reprint edition (August 28, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1400081408
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400081400
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.7 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (108 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #608,095 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By C. Baker VINE VOICE on September 11, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I love reading about football, football history, and great players of the past, so I very much enjoyed this biography of John Unitas (1933-2002), one of the best quarterbacks in professional football history.

First a little bit about Johnny U. Unitas grew up in a hard scrabble environment in Pittsburgh. His father died when he was five and his mother and older brother worked hard to keep the family intact. Unitas was a bit light for a football player but was the starting quarterback for his high school. His dream was to play for Notre Dame but he couldn't get in so he went on to play at the University of Louisville in the early 1950's. While the team didn't do very well, Unitas did and his jersey number (#16) is the only one retired by that school. In 1955 Unitas was drafted in the 9th round by the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL but was soon cut and ended up playing in a semi-pro league around Pittsburgh. Through the football grapevine the Baltimore Colts brought Unitas in for a tryout in 1956 and was signed to back up starter George Shaw. Shaw went down in the forth game and Unitas held on to the starting job, except when injured, from 1956-1972.

Unitas won 3 NFL championships in his career - the first which many consider to be the most pivotal professional football game ever played - the 1958 NFL Championship where the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants 23-17 in the first overtime game in NFL history. The game was televised nationwide and many credit the game for drawing the public's attention to the National Football League and as the launching pad for today's lucrative television contracts and the sport's wide popularity. Some still refer to this game as the "Greatest Game Ever Played.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Terrell Owens is not the first pro football star to have questions about an autobiography. When asked about the glaring errors - his father's name is incorrect, for example - in his 1960s autobiography, John Unitas told a reporter that he never read the book, let alone wrote it.

Such gems on Unitas, arguably the greatest quarterback in NFL history, is found in the outstanding biography by Tom Callahan. Portions of the book were recently excerpted in Sports Illustrated.

Callahan mixes past interviews and material on Unitas with interviews from teammates, opponents, family and friends to present a complete picture of the era of sports and culture. Particularly interesting are comments by ESPN college analyst Lee Corso concerning Unitas the college player and one whose recommendation carried as much weight off the field as in the huddle.

Callahan uniquely covers the landmark 1958 championship game between the Colts and Giants by using a play-by-play summary with comments from participants.

An interesting chapter covers the time Unitas spent with the San Diego Chargers; when illegal drugs and steroids began to replace beer and mixed drinks as tools for players to relax and bond. It was an end of an era in so many ways.

There are plenty of books chronicling pro football that hit the bookshelves in September, but Johnny U should be your first "draft pick."
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Format: Hardcover
His father died when he was five, leaving behind a hard-pressed family and a coal-delivery business. After school, Johnny helped out --- like, before he was ten years old, shoveling three tons of coal into a customer's basement while it was raining.

But then, Johnny Unitas dedicated himself to everything he did. Comic books: he could read them for hours. Later, he fell in love with the sports fiction of John Tunis. And, of course, he had infinite time to dream about playing football for Notre Dame.

Notre Dame wasn't interested. Louisville was. Notre Dame's mistake. In a game that Louisville lost in a 59-6 rout, Unitas completed 9 of 16 passes, returned 6 kickoffs, made 86% of Louisville's tackles (he played offense and defense), and ran 22 yards for his team's only touchdown. When it was over, he got a huge ovation. No one saw how, in the locker room, he could not raise his arms and his uniform shirt had to be cut off him.

If you didn't get goose bumps just then, stay with me. You will. In Johnny Unitas, we are talking about a genuine hero --- and not just because he is regarded, almost universally, as the greatest football player of the first half of the twentieth century. Unitas is thrilling to read about, and to think about, because his struggle took place in the open, in real time, with the outcome uncertain and physical pain guaranteed. Unitas never complained. He never made apologies. He had a job to do, and it was his responsibility to get it done.

In a time when college football was a big deal and the pros were a bunch of rowdies who earned $5,000 or $6,000, he did that job so well that, like Michael Jordan, he made sport into art. He didn't know about wasted moves. A dancer: watch him drop back to pass. A magician: see him spin and feint.
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Format: Hardcover
First of all I am biased: I attended 95% of the Baltimore Colts games that JU played in (Section 32 Upper row 27) - I was a teenager and a fanatic Colts fan - Callahan captures just about everything I remember from 45 years ago. This book should be read by everyone under 50 who believe that Elway, Montana, Marino and Manning were the best QBs ever - if they read this book they'll know what we Colts fans (that's Baltimore not Indy) have known since 1958 - that Unitas was the best ever and Unitas We Stand!
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