There are those who would have liked to see No. 19 finish his career in a Baltimore Colts uniform. Johnny Unitas was one. But it wasn’t to be. The 1972 Colts finished with a 5-9 record — the club’s worst mark since Unitas’ rookie season of 1956 — and new owner Robert Irsay was pushing for change. Those in the organization who resisted it didn’t last. According to legend, Colts head coach Don McCafferty refused to bench Unitas during the 1972 season, despite Irsay’s orders, so after the fifth game McCafferty was sent packing; the following week, new coach John Sandusky started Marty Domres.
On Jan. 22, 1973, Baltimore general manager Joe Thomas shipped football’s original field general to San Diego for future considerations. Eight days later, after acquiring the No. 2 overall pick in the draft in another trade, the Colts selected LSU QB Bert Jones.
Suddenly, everything that defined Baltimore belonged to California.
The San Diego scene was much different from where Unitas had come from. In Baltimore, he and the Colts of the 1950s and ’60s were kings of the old world. But the cross-continental trip introduced the 39-year-old passer to the new world of pro football, complete with drugs and wild behavior.
Carl Mauck had spent the 1969 season with Unitas in Baltimore. He had witnessed how the other players — many of them legends in their own right — had responded to Unitas’ leadership, unconditionally. But when the two men reunited in San Diego, much had changed around them. Same as America, pro football was experiencing a generational shift.
“He had a hard time dealing with that,” Mauck says. “He’d ask, ‘Carl, what’s the deal with these goofy cigarettes (marijuana)?’
“If you knew him, you knew how he felt. If you didn’t know him you probably couldn’t tell. He went about his business the same way.”
San Diego was a young team trying to find its way. Unitas’ body had little to give. He had badly injured his throwing elbow in 1968 and had never been the same. But the fire was still there, and Unitas still demanded that every detail of every play be perfect. Early into camp, he sent a message to the Chargers’ top receiver, Jerry LeVias. “I was supposed to run a post-corner,” LeVias recalls, “and give him a look before I cut. Well, I made a great catch, but what I remember most was seeing this guy sprinting down the field after me in black high-tops because I didn’t give him the look.”
Prior to the start of the season, San Diego head coach Harland Svare said of his new quarterback: “He knows more about football than anyone I've ever met. 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.”
Svare’s actions didn’t support those sentiments. The coach called 36 runs and just 28 passes in Unitas’ Chargers debut — a 38-0 loss to George Allen’s Redskins. Afterward, Unitas said of the game plan: “They believe in ball control. Someone is going to have to change. I like more freedom. And I’ve been around too long to change.”
The next week, he completed 10-of-18 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns in a 34-7 win over Buffalo to claim the final victory of his 18-year career. After leading San Diego to a 1-3 start, Unitas was sent to the bench. He attempted only one more pass — a seven-yard completion in Week Eight.
Despite his struggles, Unitas was never bitter. He played the role of coach when he could no longer play the role of quarterback, and he found a friend in the team’s third-round pick, Dan Fouts.
“It was surreal to be in the same locker room, let alone play catch with the greatest quarterback who ever played. I still shake my head at the thought of it,” Fouts says. “He taught me many subtle things about playing the position: How to move defensive backs with your eyes, head or body. Just watching him I could tell what he was talking about. … A lot of those nuances no coach could come close to explaining, and here I had the master showing me.”
Fouts keeps a memento from that season on his office wall today — a portrait of Unitas signed by the master himself. It reads: To Dan Fouts, a rising star in the NFL, don’t forget to duck. Your friend, Johnny U
Laughs Fouts, “I don’t know if the duck part was tongue-in-cheek about me being an Oregon Duck, or if it was him reminding me to always look out.”
The Chargers finished the 1973 season with a 2-11-1 record. Unitas arrived in 1974 to find the rest of his teammates on strike. Recalls Mauck, “He told me, ‘Look, they’re paying me x-amount of dollars to report. It’s a pretty good lick. I’ve got to report, I need the dollars.’ I told him if anybody deserved it, it was him. He went up, got his bonus, came back down and gave me enough money to take everybody out and get something to eat.”
Unitas retired soon after.
No one quite knows why Unitas kept playing after the Colts no longer wanted him. Maybe it was the money. Maybe it was a desire to prove Baltimore wrong. Maybe he just couldn’t give up the game. Eventually, though, the master of all quarterbacks ran out of options.
“Time waits for no man,” Mauck says. “I learned that a long time ago. Somewhere along the line you’ve got to give it up — whether they do it to you, or you do it yourself.”
Mike Beacom is a pro and college football writer whose work has appeared in numerous print and online sources. He is also the author of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Understanding Football (Alpha, 2010). Follow him on twitter @mbeac