BALTIMORE – As football’s Bart Starr goes to his grave this week, an editor with boyhood roots in Wisconsin asks who was better – the great Green Bay Packers quarterback, or the guy who played that position for Baltimore’s hallowed Colts, named John Unitas?
Frankly, the question is so preposterous that it never even occurred to anyone around here to ask.
Unitas was the very face of the great Baltimore Colts teams; Vince Lombardi, not Starr, was the face of the Packers.
In his heyday, Unitas became the face of the entire National Football League. In the impossible drama of the 1958 Sudden Death championship game, he helped give birth to pro football as the modern national pastime.
In his heyday, Starr wasn’t even the face of his own backfield. That would have been Paul Hornung or Jim Taylor.
Unitas decided what plays his Colts would run. He might throw the bomb on third-and-inches from his own 12-yard line – even when coaches told him to stay on the ground.
Starr was Lombardi’s surrogate. He’s the guy who had to beg Lombardi, “If you want me to be a leader on this team, you have to stop yelling at me, Coach.” You can look it up.
None of this is intended to diminish Starr’s accomplishments. Hell, the guy won five championships for Lombardi’s Packers. (He also played the year before Lombardi’s arrival, when the club went 1-10-1. Or, as the great columnist Red Smith wrote that year, “The Packers overwhelmed one team, underwhelmed 10, and whelmed one.”)
But then the Packers became a machine. Lombardi was the technician who created them, and Starr was the foreman who made sure all parts were functioning properly on the field.
Unitas’s greatness preceded Starr’s by a few years and then put the NFL on the map with his dramatic play-calling and his 47 games in a row with touchdown passes.
Starr was the guy handing off to Hornung to run the Green Bay sweep behind Fuzzy Thurston.
Both quarterbacks came out of an era when professional football was still regarded as an afterthought to the college game. Offenses were still grind-it-out, three yards and a clump of mud. The pros were a bunch of overgrown lugs trying to scratch out some semblance of a living until they were forced into grown-up’s jobs.
Unitas changed it for all of them.
When he stood at the New York Giants’ one-yard line in the overtime at Yankee Stadium in December of ’58, and gazed across the line of scrimmage, that wasn’t just the end zone in front of him – it was the American future, where baseball was about to be perceived as slow and sluggish and football, with its non-stop action, was suddenly delivering more drama and, by far, more money for everyone connected to it.
So give Starr his due. On some powerful Lombardi-coached Packers, he was the guy on the field directing the action. He kept his cool, he made damned few mistakes, and he knew how to use the Hall of Fame skills of his supporting cast.
But Unitas, despite his crewcut and his laid-back demeanor, was pro football’s version of Elvis at the dawn of rock and roll, or Al Jolson at the start of talkies, declaring, “You ain’t heard nothing yet.”
Michael Olesker, columnist for the News American, Baltimore Sun, and Baltimore Examiner has spent a quarter of a century writing about the city he loves.He is the author of five previous books, including Michael Olesker’s Baltimore: If You Live Here, You’re Home, Journeys to the Heart of Baltimore, and The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and Its Love Affair in the 1950s, all published by Johns Hopkins Press.