Johnny Unitas (1933-2002)
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One of UofL’s best-known graduates is Johnny Unitas, who completed 245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns for the Cards from 1951 to 1954. He completed his B.S. degree in 1955 in physical education, which was offered through the College of Arts and Sciences at that time. He then went on to a stellar 18-year career in the NFL. He is widely regarded as the greatest professional quarterback of all time.
It is recorded that the 6’1” Johnny Unitas weighed 145 pounds on his first day of practice at the University of Louisville. Unitas’ first start was in the fifth game of the 1951 season against St. Bonaventure. He threw 11 consecutive passes and three touchdowns to give the Cardinals a 21-19 lead. Though Louisville lost the game 22-21 on a disputed field goal, it had stumbled upon arguably the world’s most talented quarterback of all time.
After a brief stint as a semi-professional player, he signed with the Baltimore Colts in 1956. By his retirement in 1974, after 17 years with the Colts and one season with the San Diego Chargers, he held career records for attempted passes, completions, yards gained passing, touchdown passes, and other achievements.
Although most marks were later eclipsed, he played in an era when the rules made passing more difficult. One of his records, however, may stand forever: he threw a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games.
Mr. Unitas, in his trademark black, high-top cleats and crew cut, is considered the first great modern quarterback and often is seen as the measure against which quarterbacks have been compared since. He practically invented the two-minute drill in the 1958 NFL championship game, where he led the Colts on an 80-yard game-winning drive against the New York Giants in the NFL’s first sudden death overtime -- often referred to as “the greatest game ever played.”
Though he is famed for wearing the number 19 as a professional, the number 16 he wore while at the University of Louisville remains the lone number in football ever to be retired by the University.
Unitas Tower, a high-rise dormitory on Belknap campus, was named in his honor. UofL also boasts the Johnny Unitas Football Museum in the Cardinal Football Complex at Papa John’s Cardinal Stadium where a life size statue of Mr. Unitas stands overlooking the playing field.
Dean J. Blaine Hudson presents the College of Arts and Sciences Hall of Honor medallion for Johnny Unitas to his widow, Sandra Unitas.