(Reuters) - Johnny Unitas has been described as the first modern quarterback but he is also an early reminder of the physical price that many pay for their glory days in the National Football League (NFL).
Unitas played almost his entire 200-plus game career for the Baltimore Colts, where he was a perfect fit, a humble guy from blue collar Pittsburgh who became beloved in an equally unglamorous city.
A pure passer with an other-wordly ability to read a situation and call bold and unpredictable plays, Unitas played no small part in making the NFL the sporting and business colossus that it is today.
Unitas led the Colts to three NFL championships and threw at least one touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games, a record that stood for more than half a century.
But if he was defined by one game it was the famous 1958 overtime victory over the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium that is sometimes described as the ‘greatest game ever played’.
“A position was born that day,” said award-winning journalist Frank Deford.
“That vision of him was embedded in the American mind thereafter and every quarterback since him... can be placed in that template.
“It all descends from Johnny Unitas on that December day in 1958.”
Former commissioner Paul Tagliabue had no doubt that Unitas was instrumental in helping the NFL become the most popular league in the country, now bringing in more than $8 billion in annual income.
“At a time when national television was beginning to focus on the NFL, Johnny U captured the public’s imagination and helped drive the growing popularity of professional football,” Tagliabue said.
But Unitas, who retired after the 1973 season, lived out his life in pain after getting his elbow crushed during a game in 1968.
Shortly before his death of a heart attack on Sept. 11, 2002 at the age of 69, Unitas spoke of the unwanted legacy of that, and other hits, that left him barely able to use his right hand.
“I have no strength in the fingers,” he told Sports Illustrated.
“I can’t use a hammer or saw around the house. I can’t button buttons. I can’t use zippers. Very difficult to tie shoes. I can’t brush my teeth with it, because I can’t hold a brush. I can’t hold a fork with the right hand. I can’t pick this phone up.
“You give me a full cup of coffee, and I can’t hold it. I can’t comb my hair.”
But that disability of his final years is not the Unitas most fans remember.
Instead, they fondly recall a seminal figure.
“It’s not important whether Unitas was the greatest. He is THE quarterback of all-time,” said Deford.
“Unitas is the one and only and as such I think he’ll only be more legendary as time passes.”
Reporting by Andrew Both in Cary, North Carolina; Editing by Christian Radnedge