The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project running through mid-July detailing 95 artifacts that tell the story of the NFL, as the league prepares to enter its 95th season. See the entire series here.
The contract signed by free-agent quarterback John Unitas to play for the Baltimore Colts in 1956, a one-year deal for $7,000, is interesting enough. He'd never get a dime unless he made the team, and he'd then get $437 for each of the 12 weeks that he was on the team; and if he made it to the end of the season with the Colts, he'd be paid the balance of $1,750. That's what you call a one-way contract. But it's how Unitas got to this point that's surprising.
In 1955, he'd been a ninth-round pick (102nd overall) of the Steelers out of Louisville, the fourth quarterback in training camp (they'd keep three), and late in camp coach Walt Kiesling cut him. Unitas, Pittsburgh born and bred, seethed. He'd never even played in one preseason game, and they'd cut him. The Steelers gave him $10 for bus fare home from training camp in Olean, N.Y., but Unitas pocketed it ... and hitchhiked back to Pittsburgh.
He played semipro ball that fall and waited for a chance that might never come. But the Colts, needing a number three quarterback in 1956, had him in for a tryout (he paid his own way to Baltimore), and he played well enough to make the team. And, soon, to win the starting job. The rest, starting with Unitas' star turn in the momentous 1958 NFL Championship Game, is history.