There have been many highly talented quarterbacks in the NFL that have helped set the standard at the position. Among the most prominent has been Johnny Unitas, as he put forth an incredible career that has kept him in high regard as one of the game’s greatest players. The former then- Baltimore Colts quarterback became the gold standard at the quarterback position behind his tremendous success over nearly two decades in the league. It all came at a cost that made his life quite challenging to work through after his playing days
Johnny Unitas’ NFL career
Johnny Unitas began his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers as the 102nd overall pick in the ninth round of the 1955 draft. That saw him spend his first year with the franchise, where he was the fourth quarterback on the roster that led to his release.
The Louisville product got the chance to prove himself with the then-Baltimore Colts as he earned a workout with the team. Unitas got his opportunity after starter George Shaw broke his leg against the Chicago Bears. He struggled at first with the full-time spot but got the green light as the starter that led to him pushing forward to lead the league in passing yards and touchdown passes that pushed the Colts to their first winning season and earned him his first of three MVP awards.
After that, Unitas established himself as one of the game’s greatest players. He guided the team to three NFL championships, a Super Bowl V win, 10 Pro Bowl selections, five First-Team All-Pro nods, and three Second-Team All-Pro nominations, among other accolades. Unitas also held the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass for 52 years and beyond that has earned recognition as one of the greatest quarterbacks in league history.
His success on the field did come at a cost that later made his life after his playing days rough.
Johnny Unitas’ physical struggles and decline
Following his retirement, Johnny Unitas settled into a career into broadcasting as a color commentary for NFL Games on CBS in the 1970s.
Unitas received the honor of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 while his No. 19 jersey was retired by the Colts and No. 16 jersey retired by the University of Louisville. He was also a massive proponent against Robert Irsay decided to move the Colts from Baltimore to Indianapolis and had pushed for the city to get another NFL team.
Beyond that, Unitas was physically ailed as he struggled to utilize his right arm in retirement. He suffered a rough hit during his career that caused him to have trouble in the mid-1990s as he was having issues with the nerves that controlled his hand and fingers. That led to him losing the strength and feeling in his hands to the point where he couldn’t rotate thumb to grip anything. Over time, it worsened to him being unable to close his hand.
Meanwhile, he had to have both of his knees replaced as his right knee injury during his career forced him to have surgery on his left leg due to physically overcompensating on the other knee. His physical struggles pushed him to make a strong demand for disability compensation for players in retirement.
Johnny Unitas’ death and legacy
Like many of his peers, Johnny Unitas was beaten physically in his many years that followed his retirement.
His body had gone through all the wear and tear that led to him physically unable to his right hand and couldn’t do any physical activity outside of golf. Unitas passed away on September 11, 2002, at age 69 due to a heart attack while working out at a physical therapy center in Baltimore.
Unitas has a lasting legacy as one of the game’s all-time greats. Still, his life after his professional career was battered by physical ailments that didn’t allow him to live a healthy fruitful retirement.