It is a little like watching a Neanderthal man walking down Fifth Avenue. He wears the high-top, black leather shoes he has sported since he came into the league and he wears them with distinction. The only other San Diego Charger in high-tops is Dave Costa, the defensive tackle the club got from Denver after he complained when Coach John Ralston tried to change his stance. "John Unitas is the chairman of the board of the high-top society," Costa says. "I'm only a member."
Costa's high-tops are made by Adidas, however. They are light blue and have the distinctive three white stripes on the side. Unitas' practice shoes are cracked and fissured with age, and if he plays much longer he may have to have his new pairs bench made. They're not turning out high-tops like they used to.
"Jim Thorpe left me his shoes," Unitas says, smiling. "They keep my ankles together."
A bigger problem for Unitas, now in his 18th year as an NFL quarterback and in his 41st year to heaven, is keeping himself together. When he's in fine fettle, as he was last Friday night at the Coliseum in the Chargers' 30-17 loss to Los Angeles, he is as impressive as ever. There is nothing wrong with his arm; the passes are released in a hurry and they home in on receivers as accurately as of yore. More surprisingly, his feet are still nimble and, when he shuffles back into position to throw, are quicker than those of Wayne Clark, 26, and Dan Fouts, 22, the other San Diego quarterbacks.
September 9, 1973
Most of the passes Unitas threw in practice the week of the Rams' game were short or mid-range, but not because he cannot throw long. "That's the way the offense is geared," he said one afternoon. He was lying on a water bed procured for him by Coach Harland Svare to ease the pain in his back. Twice during training camp at the University of California at Irvine his sacroiliac has gone out, the result of a bad knee that forced him into an unnatural posture while throwing.
"My arm is as good as ever," he said, "but I have to practice long passes. You don't get sharp if you don't work on them. You can't throw long well all at once when you get a receiver open deep. You have to have spent time working on the patterns."
That morning, after the two-hour regular practice, Unitas had asked Wide Receivers Gary Garrison and Chuck Dicus to work on patterns with him. They spent 30 minutes in the special drill and Unitas threw well.
Earlier that day there had been flare-ups between offensive and defensive linemen, even in dummy scrimmage, when they weren't really hitting. "They're getting a bit testy," Svare said. "Maybe next year we'll cut back on how much time we spend in camp."
Unitas brought his quiet leadership from Baltimore to San Diego. He is a solitary man. After the morning practices, in the free time between meetings, he stayed alone in his room, lying on his water bed, or strolled by himself around the campus. He was not surly or unapproachable; often he talked to the young quarterbacks about the techniques of, say, hitting a tight end on a crossing pattern, but he did not seek out company.
Yet on this particular day, with tempers high, he changed the whole feeling of the practice. He called a bootleg play, which requires the quarterback to carry the ball himself on a wide sweep, a play unthinkable in a game, given the age and physical condition of Johnny U. The defense was caught by surprise as he flitted across the goal line. Once in the end zone, he jumped high in the air, spiked the ball and laughed. The whole team broke up and the tension disappeared.
A few moments later Unitas threw a pass over the middle and Defensive Back Ron Smith made a good play, batting it out of the receiver's hands. "Hey, old man," Smith hollered. "I got you that time. You didn't fool me."
Until the last split second Unitas had looked at another receiver. In his illustrious past he has stared down an entire secondary, influencing the defenders to follow his eyes and not his arm. The San Diego defensive backs were beginning to realize that where he looks is not where he goes.
"You can't tell what the man will do," Smith said. "I remember when I was with the Bears and he had first and goal on our five. No way, with the running backs he had, he was going to do anything but run the ball down our throat. Know what he called? He called a screen! Nobody in nine miles of the receiver. That just blew our minds. They went on to kill us."
"He knows more about football than anyone I've ever met," says Svare. "I've been associated with some great quarterbacks as a player and a coach—Y.A. Tittle, Charlie Conerly, a lot of them. But none could touch him. Aside from everything else—the arm, the head, the leadership—he's the smoothest ball handler I ever saw. He never makes a mistake."
"It's a little different, handing off here," Unitas said. "The backs are individualists. They don't run the same route the same way every time, so I have to adjust. It's no big problem, though. Mike Garrett may go wide one time and pinch me the next, but he's a fine back and I can handle that."
Unitas bounced up and down on the water bed, listening to the gurgles. "I guess this thing's all right," he said. "I've only had it three days. The problem I got with it is every time I change position at night, it wakes me up going slosh, slosh, and I don't really know if it has helped my back at all."
The back is the most serious of a series of injuries that have kept Unitas a bit behind schedule, the most recent being a result of getting blind-sided in an exhibition against the 49ers.
"One of their big defensive linemen hit me a shot," he said. "I was down and my leg was twisted a little and he fell on it and I could hear it pop. I walked off the field but the knee was sore and a few days later, trying to favor it again, my back went out and I had a muscle spasm. I couldn't straighten up. The doctor put it back in place and it doesn't bother me now, but the knee is arthritic and my doctor in Baltimore says that it will deteriorate a little every year. So I don't know how much longer I can play and neither does anyone else. I'll take it week by week."
Unitas is playing this year for pride. He does not really like the California climate. He owns a 70-year-old farmhouse on a few acres of land outside Baltimore and, occasionally, in the relentless sun that illuminated Irvine, he longed for weather.
"I was just thinking the other day," he said. "I was trying to figure out what I miss. You know something, we haven't even had a drizzle since we came to camp. I miss thunder showers. I like to sit on the porch and watch the rain come down. No way I could ever live out here. I'll put in the time I can, but when it's over I'm going back to where it rains in the afternoon and gets cold in the winter."
Life, unfortunately, does not begin for John Unitas at 40. Forty for him means he is an old quarterback. It does not, however, mean he is over the hill. The Ram game was the first of the 1973 exhibition schedule in which he forced his old bones through four full quarters. He passed 31 times and completed 18 for 286 yards and two touchdowns; five of his passes were dropped. All told, he looked a better man than John Hadl or James Harris, the two quarterbacks who played for Los Angeles; the Rams' hero was Jim Bertelsen, who rushed for 97 yards and set up touchdowns with punt returns of 22 and 50 yards.
In a brilliant minute and eight seconds at the end of the second quarter Unitas took the Chargers 87 yards for a touchdown, passing on every down, using the clock as parsimoniously as he did in his salad days. In the closing minutes of the game he almost duplicated that bravura performance, but Dave Williams fumbled after catching a pass on the Los Angeles 14.
Unitas threw every pass in the repertoire and threw them impeccably. He lofted soft lead passes to ends flying down the sideline, and they dropped in as if sighted. For his first touchdown he drilled a hard, sharp ball to Williams, cutting straight across the field for a 28-yard reception. Later in the game, under a massive rush, Unitas moved up through a collapsing pocket, then found Bob Thomas in the clear for a 41-yard touchdown pass.
Sadly, Unitas will not end his career in a blaze of glory, because the Chargers do not offer him the canvas upon which to paint the picture of which he is capable. He will finish a loser, but he will lose with grace, just as he did on this night, and the Chargers will come closer to being winners because of him.
"We'll be better," he said after the game. "We need a little more work on our timing. But we've got time for work."
He thought about that for a minute and smiled. "I hope I've got time," he said. "I think I have."