Ravens mourn Unitas' death

Ozzie Newsome said he doesn't have many heroes. He counts the Baltimore Colts' legendary quarterback Johnny Unitas, the Hall of Famer famous for his blue-collar style and precision passing, as one of them. A true field general who led the Colts to NFL championships in 1958 and 1959 and a Super Bowl title in 1971, Unitas died of a heart attack on Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002 at the age of 69.

"Very plain and simply, Johnny Unitas was one of my heroes," said Newsome, a Hall of Fame tight end and the Baltimore Ravens' senior vice president of football operations. "When you think of Baltimore, you think of Johnny Unitas."

Unitas was the first quarterback to pass for more than 40,000 yards, emerging from obscurity as a semi-pro player for the Bloomfield Rams. He never complained, and he never stopped trying to prove himself after his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers dismissed him in one of their greatest mistakes.

Colts coach Weeb Ewbank saw something in the skinny passer with the black hightops and crewcut haircut.

He saw the expert mechanics. He saw guts. He saw a perfectionist. He saw the accuracy and arm strength.

Unitas' intelligence was instrumental for the Colts' success. He was one of the originators of the two-minute drill.

Now, Unitas, a supporter of football in Baltimore even after those infamous Mayflower vans whisked his beloved Colts away to Indianapolis is gone.

The NFL, especially the city of Baltimore, is taking Unitas' passing hard.

"This is stunning, sad, sad news," Ravens owner Art Modell said. "He was a good friend, my contemporary. He helped me make me love this game more. It meant so much to me, my family and our team when he embraced us when we first arrived.

"He is on the short list of players that you can count on one hand of the greatest to ever play. His impact was enormous. This is a sad day for the NFL community, and an even sadder day for Baltimore. Our hearts go out to his family."

A tribute to Unitas' achievements had been planned for halftime of the Oct. 20 contest against Jacksonville. A statue of him will be unveiled on the north end of Ravens Stadium.

Unitas regularly attended Ravens games and watched from the sidelines. Apparently, he made this a practice not only so he could remain close to the action in his retirement, but so he wouldn't be distracted by or disappoint fans who wanted to talk to him.

Unitas took a lot of time with Ravens new starting quarterback Chris Redman, a fellow Louisville alumnus, publicly endorsing him when others doubted Redman's mettle.

"I feel horrible," Redman said. "I'm so close to Johnny and his family. He's had his arm around me since my college days. I give my utmost sympathy to his family.

"He was such a great person. I believe he's one of the main reasons I'm an NFL starting quarterback. He had such an impact on me. I'll miss him so much."

Unitas retired after the 1973 season with 22 NFL records, among them marks for most passes attempted and completed, most yards gained passing, most touchdown passes and most seasons leading the league in touchdown passes.

Unitas completed 2,830 of 5,186 passes for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. He completed at least one touchdown pass in 47 straight games, a record not challenged since it was set from 1956-60. Unitas was Most Valuable Player three times and played in 10 Pro Bowls.

He led Baltimore to the NFL championship in 1958 and 1959 and the Super Bowl in 1970. On the NFL's 50th anniversary in 1969, Unitas was voted the greatest quarterback of all time. He also was selected at quarterback for the NFL's All-Time team in 2000 by the 36 Pro Football Hall of Fame voters.

Unitas will be greatly missed.

"His presence in Baltimore and in the history of the NFL is unmatched," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Much of the success the NFL enjoys today can be found in the seeds Johnny planted in the late 1950's and ‘60's.

"This is a tremendous loss, especially here in the hometown he adopted and made better with his community efforts."

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