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Johnny Unitas’ High-Tops

The MMQB presents NFL 95, a special project—unveiled every Wednesday from May through 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 shoes were black high-tops with long spikes and white laces. Johnny Unitas wore them for as long as he was a Baltimore Colt. 

Even in the 1970s, when football fields were combed and trimmed like putting greens and even the linemen wore low-cut football cleats, Unitas still wore the high tops. He had to compromise though, in 1973, when the Chargers sported uniform powder-blue low-tops. The team ordered two pairs special for Unitas and defensive tackle Dave Costa, who told Sports Illustrated’s Tex Maule he was a member of the “high-top society" chaired by Unitas. Said Johnny with a grin, "Jim Thorpe left me his shoes. They keep my ankles together." 

The high-top was resurrected in the 2013 season in the form of Carolina quarterback Cam Newton’s Under Armour super-high-tops, but it’s Unitas’ legacy of pushing the aerial envelope and putting the NFL on the map which endures more than 40 years after his retirement and 12 years following his death. Back when ground-and-pound offenses lacking modern-day finesse were all the NFL had known, Unitas led Baltimore to victory in the 1958 NFL championship with 314 passing yards and a breathtaking two-minute drill. "You have to gamble or die in this league,” Unitas told Maule in 1959, weeks after the championship that was dubbed The Greatest Game Ever Played. “I don't know if you can call something controlled gambling, but that's how I look at my play-calling. I'm a little guy, comparatively, that's why I gamble. It doesn't give those giants a chance to bury me."

—Robert Klemko

Unitas laces ups his high-tops—this pair specially designed for the Orange Bowl’s artificial turf—during a practice two days before Super Bowl V. (William Smith/AP)

Unitas laces ups his high-tops—this pair specially designed for the Orange Bowl’s artificial turf—before Super Bowl V. (William Smith/AP)

Photograph at top courtesy of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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