JOHNNY U by Tom Callahan


The Life and Times of John Unitas
Age Range: 1933 - 2002
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The life story of one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

The singular feature commented on by nearly everyone who ever met John Unitas (1933–2002) was the size of his hands. Given the pivotal role he would play in helping the NFL become the multibillion-dollar juggernaut it is today, it’s a good thing he had such massive paws, because his slender, humped shoulders certainly didn’t inspire confidence in his ability to handle everything that was thrust upon him. Handle it he did, however, despite losing his father at the age of five, struggling through a hardscrabble upbringing in Pittsburgh, dealing with skeptics and, in the early years, a public that was largely indifferent to the idea of professional football. Though Unitas’s legend may loom largest, he wasn’t the only key figure to take the field during the 1958 NFL championship game between his Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants. Dubbed “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” it did more than perhaps any other single game to promote the burgeoning league’s popularity. Consequently, longtime sports journalist Callahan can be forgiven for straying from Unitas occasionally to spotlight a colorful cast of characters that includes Art Donovan, Gino Marchetti and Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb. The anecdotal narrative style recalls George Plimpton’s Paper Lion, and indeed, Unitas’s career overlaps the period Plimpton spent with the Detroit Lions, an elite team the Colts had to overcome to claim their first championship. Though a few stories stray too far from the core narrative, most of them flesh out the world around Unitas, providing insight into this cool, collected leader who inspired his teammates and epitomized what it was to be a professional football player during the game’s halcyon days.

Throws a few incompletes, but finds the end zone more often than not.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 2006
ISBN: 1-4000-8139-4
Page count: 304pp
Publisher: Crown
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15th, 2006


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