Book Review: Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas

Top – John Unitas, Bottom – L to R – Art Donovan, Jim Mutscheller and Lenny Moore

Allow me to introduce the masterly Tom Callahan, author of a compelling book: “Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas.” The title, however, doesn’t begin to capture the full sweep of this powerful sports story.

The book also reveals a history of the Baltimore Colts’ National Football League (NFL) team, particularly, its first championship year, 1958. Also, spotlighted by the author, are the Colts’ key talented players and coaches, along with its popular owner – Carroll Rosenbloom.

The Colts existed from 1953 to 1983. They played their home games at Memorial Stadium on 33rd Street. Many a day that building was filled to its capacity of 53, 373 fans – cheering the team on to victory. It rightly earned the nickname: “The world’s largest outdoor insane asylum.”

I’m pleased to say that on many occasions, as a native of Baltimore’s Locust Point, I was one of those ultra-excited fans. This included attending the victorious championship games of 1958, in NYC’s fabled Yankee Stadium. (1) I also was lucky to get tickets for the 1959 title game, along with the 1970 title match, both played at Memorial Stadium.

Getting back to the man himself, John Unitas (1933-2002). He was also known as “Johnny U.” He played quarterback for the Colts, beginning in 1956 up and till 1972. Together, Unitas, a Hall of Famer, and his formidable teammates made sports history. They built a legend that still lives on today.

This book captures all the ingredients, amplified with anecdote after anecdote, that supports a belief in that sports legend. It fully embraces the golden days of quarterback Unitas, with his sixteen straight winnings season, the Colts’ franchise, and the NFL itself.

Unitas’ family origins were soaked in the black coalfields of West Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky. He was born poor. At age 5, his dad, Francis, died. His mom, Helen Superfisky, of proud Lithuanian stock, carried the family onward. This included John and his three siblings.

Raised in the Brookline section of Pittsburgh, Unitas was told in Catholic grade school, he was “too light to play football.” At St. Justin’s H.S., however, he had packed on a few more pounds, up to 137 pounds, and was big enough to play quarterback on its team and gain some notice.

Lucky for Unitas, Frank Gitschier, took an interest in him. He was then an assistant football coach at the U. of Louisville. Gitschier worked his magic and got Unitas admitted to the school in 1951, where he starred as its quarterback. Unitas was so grateful to him that he chose Gitschier to introduce him at his Hall of Fame ceremony.

In 1955, Unitas was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, but was soon cut by the coach, because he said, “We can’t carry four quarterbacks.” It looked like the end of the line for Unitas. He ended up playing that year for a semi-pro football team, the Bloomfield Rams, for a measly $6 a game. Think – the pits!

As for cutting players, the Steelers were on a roll, the author underscored. Besides Unitas, the team had “also passed up on Lenny Moore and Jim Brown.”

Memorial Stadium

In February of 1956, however, the fates (or was it the Football Gods?) intervened. Don Kellett, general manager of the Colts, in what became known as the famous “eighty-cent phone call,” contacted Unitas. He invited him to Spring camp and a chance to work out for coach Weeb Ewbank, up at the Westminster, Maryland, location.

The rest of Unitas’ development as a great quarterback is presented in detail. We see his evolution, play after critical play, into one of the premier athletes of his era.

One of the beauties of this book is that, as the author is telling the story of Unitas, he is also intertwining elaborate accounts of many of the important players that would by 1958, constitute the NFL champions, the Baltimore Colts.

Mentioned prominently in these riveting stories are the likes of Gino “The Giant” Marchetti, Don Joyce, “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, Art “The Bulldog” Donovan, Lenny “Sputnik” Moore, Jim Mutschleller, L.G. Dupre, Alex Hawkins, Bert Rechichar, Alan “The Horse” Ameche, Jim Parker, Lenny Lyles, Tom Matte, Raymond Berry, “Fuzzy” Thurston, Joe Campanella, Steve Myhra, Alex Sandusky, Dick Szymanski, Carl Taseff, “Buzz” Nutter, Bill Pellington, Johnny Sample, Art Spinney, and Earl Morrall. (2)

The author paints a bleak picture of what it was like for NFL players of that early 50’s era. The pay ranged from $4,000 to $7,500 a year. Most needed part-time jobs, some at the Bethlehem Steel’s facility at Sparrows Point, to make a decent living.

How rough/dirty was the game of pro football back then? Jimmy Orr said, “They didn’t have any rules. I once saw a defensive guy kick a tight end in the face. No flag. They could bury your ass and not call a penalty. Roughing the quarterback? Forget about that.”

In the offseason, it wasn’t unusual to see a Colt player at a local park, movie house, or restaurant. In other words, during this time period, there was little that separated the players from the fans. That all changed, big time, after the 1958 title game that the Colts won by a score of 23 to 17 over the New York Giants.

Unitas’ family life is covered in thumbnail sketches by the author, too, with a mention of his two marriages and eight children. Callahan also gives an overview of Unitas’ business dealings, including his success with the “Golden Arm Restaurant and Bar” on York Road.

The feud that developed between Don Shula and Unitas over the years is also touched on, as is the reporter, the late John Steadman, “blocking for 15 years” John Mackey’s bid for Hall of Fame status. In the last year of his eligibility, the tight end was, finally, selected.

One of the things that made Callahan’s book so appealing to me was his sidebar stories on many of the players that I mentioned above. As just one example, he gave us some family history background on Art Donovan, No. 70, for the Colts, that sounds like it may have come “right out of a dime novel.”

Donovan’s grandfather, Mike Donovan, was a Civil War soldier who marched with General William T. Sherman. Later, he drove “cattle with Wyatt Earp.” After that, he took up boxing and became the “middleweight champion of the world.” In his twilight years, he became a boxing instructor at New York Athletic Club where “one of his pupils was the police commissioner – Teddy Roosevelt!”

Continuing, Art Donovan’s father, Arthur Donovan, Sr., was one of fourteen children. A son of the Bronx, he fought in the Mexican War, WWI, and WWII, and then became a renowned boxing referee. He was the third man in the ring for “19 of Joe Louis’s title fights.”

All the above is just a small sampling of the excellent writing and impactful stories you will find in Callahan’s book, “Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas.” I’m giving it my highest ratings.

This book was so good, the only thing missing was hearing the fabulous Baltimore Colts’ Marching Band playing. Sports fans – you don’t want to miss this one!


  2. The full roster for the 1958 Baltimore Colts team can be found at:

One thought on “Book Review: Johnny U: The Life & Times of John Unitas

  • June 26, 2020 at 12:44 PM

    How can I buy the book online?

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