John Unitas has a tennis elbow. It is his right elbow. The tendon has been torn away from the bone and the elbow aches steadily, like a sore tooth. When Unitas is forced to snap off a hard throw the pain becomes intense, as though somebody had jabbed a live nerve.
Against a good Philadelphia Eagle team that was leading the Baltimore Colts by six points in the second quarter last Sunday, Unitas called a pattern that sent Willie Richardson, his flanker, on a sharply angled route from right to left across the deep defense of the Eagles. Throwing through a light rain, Unitas fired the ball on a flat, hard trajectory to Richardson, who had broken free momentarily. Richardson caught it for a first down on the Philadelphia 27-yard line, but that was not the real point. Unitas had executed the play with the same untrammeled motion that has given him four lifetime records in his spectacular 11-year career, and the only people among the 60-odd thousand at Franklin Field who knew how much pain it caused Unitas were his teammates on the Colts and Johnny U.
Two plays later it was third and nine and Unitas sent Richardson on the same crossing pattern, made the same hard, accurate and painful throw, and it was first and goal for the Colts on the Philadelphia two. Jerry Hill carried the ball in for a touchdown, which put Baltimore ahead to stay 7-6. Eventually the score grew to 38-6 and the Colts won their second game of the season, landing in a three-way tie with Los Angeles and San Francisco for first place in the difficult Coastal Division.
This is a sound, strong Baltimore team. Richardson, a tall, skinny man of 27 who has little to show for the four years he has spent with the Colts, was playing in place of the injured Jimmy Orr. He performed with remarkable élan, catching 11 passes for 184 yards and two touchdowns and making life extraordinarily miserable for Aaron Martin, the Philadelphia corner back who had most but not all of the responsibility for covering him. The defense, against the Eagles, was superb, denying the Philadelphia team, which had scored 35 points against Washington the week before, a single touchdown. Don Shinnick, in his 11th year as a corner linebacker, broke the league interception record for linebackers by picking off two of the harried Norm Snead's passes, and Bob Boyd, bald as an egg after spending seven years in the Colt secondary, remained the most successful thief among active defensive backs by picking off two more for a career total of 46. The Colts, despite their years, their aches, their shiny heads, obviously played very well as a team.
But as the Philadelphia fans straggled slowly and unhappily out of Franklin Field, none of them had much to say about Richardson, Shinnick or Boyd. They talked only about Johnny U. and, even while suffering the torments of their own defeat, they spoke of him with the kind of undiluted respect and grudging affection all sports fans seem to have for a superhero.
For Unitas, this was a better game than any he had played last year. Although he hurt all afternoon, the pain was confined only to his elbow. During the 1966 season, he had a sore shoulder as well. The ripping shots he was able to get off Sunday were physically impossible for him a year ago.
The man most capable of judging how well Unitas is throwing is Raymond Berry, who has been catching his passes for 11 years.
"He's as good as ever," Berry said after the game as he sliced away the tape bandaging his ankles. "He could always throw any kind of pass if he wasn't hurt and he can again. I know his elbow hurts him but you can't tell it when he has to fire one. It comes in as hard and straight as it always did. He can throw short, long, hard, soft, on either side of you to keep it away from a defensive back and he can throw it away when he has to. Once today I broke in over the middle in the end zone and the kid on me—Nettles, I think—was right there. Johnny threw it behind us and over the end zone."
Unitas has retained his remarkable ability despite the fact that he can no longer work the long hours he used to, practicing his accuracy with Berry and his other receivers.
"I got a little ballpoint pen I keep with me at practice," Berry said. "I tape some adhesive on my pads and make a note of each pattern I work with each passer. How many patterns would you think I worked with Johnny last week?"
No one could answer him.
"No more than 16," he said. "We used to work hundreds of patterns in a week. But we have worked together so long that it doesn't hurt our timing not to practice as much, and I have reached the point where even if Johnny wanted to throw more I would be too tired to run more patterns."
There are no outward indications of the malady that affects Unitas' arm. He sat in front of his locker after the Eagle game, his face as impassive as ever. He is not an emotional man and he answered the questions put to him in a low, almost toneless voice.
"The arm has hurt a long time," he said, leaning over to unlace his high-top shoes. "I don't remember when it started, because it was a gradual thing. There's a tendon torn loose in there and it's a constant pain, even when I'm not working out. I guess they could operate, but I don't know how the operation would turn out. It hasn't hurt any worse during the last couple of years, so I'd rather not take a chance with the operation. I can stand the pain."
He has cut down sharply on the amount of throwing he does between games and played only sporadically during the preseason schedule, saving the arm. When he opened the league season against Atlanta a week ago, his arm felt well enough for him to set a personal record with 22 completions in 32 throws for 401 yards. Against Philadelphia he completed 21 of 34 for 267 yards.
"It hurts now," he said, pinching the offending elbow. His arms are not particularly muscular; the elbow is bony and totally unremarkable, with no evident swelling. "I only throw a couple of days a week now, just enough to keep sharp. But it seems to be enough. At least I can throw hard. Last year I couldn't."
Jimmy Orr, who wandered disconsolately onto the field before the game with his left arm in a sling from a dislocated shoulder, watched Unitas arch effortless long passes downfield a few times and shook his head.
"I got loose on a fly deep downfield in one of the exhibition games," Orr-said. "I had maybe a step on the guy covering me and I remember wondering if Johnny could reach me. I looked over my shoulder, and the ball was hanging up there like a peach on a tree."
It came as somewhat of a surprise to some Baltimore writers that Unitas went to Richardson as often as he did. They had come to believe that he had no faith in Richardson, who has had little playing time behind Orr.
"That came about because of the first game against Green Bay last year," Don Shula, the personable young coach of the Colts, said. "Johnny hit him with the first pass in that game and then he dropped one, and Johnny didn't throw much to him anymore. But Johnny is like all good quarterbacks. He doesn't care who he throws to. He'll do anything to win."
"You read the defense and you take what's there," Unitas said dourly. "Willie was hot and Martin couldn't cover him, so when I got single coverage on Willie I threw to him. He made some great catches, too."
Richardson was not free that often. Like most wide receivers, he was double-teamed much of the time. Most defenses in pro football, if no blitz is called, have seven defenders to cover three or sometimes four receivers, so the wide men consistently find themselves the object of the attentions of two men. On one of Richardson's touchdown catches, with the Colts on the Eagle 10-yard line, he had two Eagle defenders bracketing him just across the line of scrimmage. As he started on his pattern, both of them bumped him, but he skittered quickly to his right toward the sideline, and Unitas' perfectly thrown pass found him just before he went out of bounds. It was a play reminiscent of the old Unitas-to-Berry sideline pass.
Unitas, of course, calls the game himself, which is one of the reasons Weeb Ewbank, now coach of the New York Jets, parted company with the Colts. In his last year at Baltimore, Ewbank had insisted on sending plays in to Unitas. At midseason Owner Carroll Rosenbloom told Unitas to call his own game. Shula replaced Ewbank the next year and Unitas has called his own game since.
Against the Eagles he picked his plays with his usual cool precision and almost instant recognition of defenses. Although Unitas is 34, he is not reluctant to take chances; he runs the ball when he has to and runs with vigor and a modicum of style. Once, in the first period when the Colts had a third and six on their own 27 and had not been moving the ball well, he squirmed away from the Eagle pressure and tightroped the sideline. When he had made the six yards he needed for the first down, he delicately stepped out of bounds.
Late in the second period, with less than two minutes to go in the half and Unitas shepherding the Colts on a drive in which seconds were meaningful, he again found his receivers covered and again ran. He headed toward the sideline, looking downfield as he ran, and waved to Berry to go deeper behind Jim Nettles. Berry broke deep but by then the defense closed in and Unitas did not have time to throw. He dived for the sideline, wriggling desperately in the grasp of a tackier, trying to get out of bounds, but the official ruled that he had not made it. Reluctantly Unitas took a time-out. He wound up that drive 39 seconds before the clock ran out with a touchdown pass to Richardson, putting the Colts ahead 14-6.
In the second half Unitas was in complete command. The Colt running game had not been successful going wide earlier, so he sent Tony Lorick, Tom Matte and Jerry Hill inside for key gains. He called patterns isolating linebackers on Matte, his halfback, when the Eagles became overly aware of Richardson, and Matte, as effective a receiver as he was a passer in an emergency two years ago when he had to quarterback the Colts, took the ball for good gains.
Before the game, in the Eagle dressing room, Coach Joe Kuharich, who has traded the Eagles into respectability and done a good job of reconstructing the team, said, "If Unitas is right, there isn't much you can do. I don't think the loss of Orr will hurt them much, either. Richardson has always had good days against us."
He was right on both counts.