Thursday, September 12, 2002

Louisville remembers Unitas

The Associated Press

        LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Before he ever led the Baltimore Colts to the NFL championship, Johnny Unitas was just a freshman quarterback playing for a losing college football team.

        The Hall of Fame quarterback who broke nearly every NFL passing record died of a heart attack Wednesday. He was 69.

        Unitas played for the University of Louisville from 1951 to 1954. Although the Cardinals only won 12 games in those four seasons, Unitas starred, completing his collegiate football career with 247 of 502 passes for 2,912 yards and 27 touchdowns.

        “I think everyone knows how much Johnny Unitas meant to our university and the city of Louisville. His work on the football field is immortalized by a statue in our stadium, but Johnny Unitas the person will be immortalized in our hearts forever,” said athletic director Tom Jurich Wednesday night.

        Frank Gitschier, a former Louisville quarterback hired by Coach Frank Camp, recruited Unitas out of St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh. Notre Dame and Pittsburgh had turned Unitas down, but Gitschier persisted.

        “I told his mother two things: I'll get him to Mass every Sunday and he'll graduate,” Gitschier remembers. “Not long after that, I got a letter from Helen that said Johnny wants to go the University of Louisville.

        Unitas first impressed coaches and teammates as a freshman when he took the field against St. Bonaventure as UofL trailed 19-0.

        Although the Cards lost the game 22-21, Unitas completed 11 consecutive passes, three for TDs, while rain poured steadily.

        “We weren't going anywhere without him, that's for sure,” the Cardinal football media guide quotes Camp as saying after the game. “And if he keeps throwing the way he did against St. Bonaventure, he'll do us a lot of good.”

        UofL went on to win its next four games with Unitas as their frontman.

        As a sophomore, Unitas completed the season with 77 of 154 passes and 12 TDs.

        The school almost lost Unitas following that season to Indiana, after the Cardinals' roster was cleared by the dismissal of 15 players.

        But Unitas stayed after being reminded Indiana had ignored him earlier in his career.

        Unitas left Louisville as the ninth-round pick by Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955.

        The quarterback made regular appearances at Louisville home games in recent years.

        UofL has honored the quarterback in several ways. At the north end zone of Papa John's Cardinal Stadium stands a statue of Unitas in uniform going back to pass.

        Each year, the nation's top senior quarterback is honored with the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award given by the Frank Camp Chapter of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation. The winner is selected by a committee of football experts nationwide and the award ceremonies take place each year at the University of Louisville.

        “Johnny Unitas was a great football player, a great person and a true friend, He is the foundation of our program and his legacy extends far beyond his accomplishments on the football field. He touched so many young people through his foundation and he will never be forgotten,” said head coach John L. Smith.

        Unitas' No. 16 remains the only retired number in UofL history.

Unitas helped launch NFL success

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