Reading Johnny U and Me is like taking a Trailways bus trip through Manhattan’s Penn Plaza in the 1970’s. It snakes through many tunnels and passageways into a massive, shadowy terminal between the subways and trains. Up at ground level, the Knicks play or Mick Jagger may sing while outside the Garden, the Fortune 500 conducts business. Even Baltimore County Bar Association members who were not Colts fans may find Johnny U and Me an attractive read for its later chapters describing the Baltimore County litigation over Unitas Management, played out from the perspective of the eventual winner.
On the Trailways bus level, author John Unitas Jr. gives the reader a cold, harsh factual view of his famous father’s football career. He describes his emotions as a young boy who idolized his dad in conflict with the stark reality of a simple man with human needs and desires raised during the Depression in Pittsburgh. Thanks to access to sources no else has, Unitas Jr. describes his dad’s upbringing and youthful drive in a way never before seen in print. Applying the sort of cool indifference to his own actions his father displayed in winning a great game, Unitas Jr. deploys a “this is the way it is” style that makes the multi-level, multi- track work very readable.
The book manages to maintain perspective from a football standpoint. Each chapter tells a pointed story about a professional athlete who played a role in the career of Johnny U or a particular game in the chronology of his football career. The books insight on Johnny Sample is an example of a behind the scenes story – above the author’s level – that effected the play of the Colts in the memorable matchup with Joe Namath’s New York Jets in Superbowl III.
At the theatrical level, the book shines. Taking a “Shula” was not something I was immediately aware of: I think I remember Artie Donovan mentioning it but I thought it may have been the Schlitz bowl he was in front of during the conversation. It was well known that not all the Colt’s layers shared the media’s love of coach Don Shula. The Shula era of the Colts was not nearly as well received as later Shula efforts. The book’s take on coach Shula reveals the beginning of the end of the Colts glory years, as Carroll Rosenbloom’s ownership gave way to Bob Irsay’s, and the franchise fell quickly from pre-eminent to laughingstock to gone.
On the Fortune 500 level the end of the story is told and the other levels coalesce in as Chesapeake chowder of sadness, redemption and perseverance. Johnny Unitas should have never gone to San Diego when his skills had declined well below the exalted level he achieved in the 60’s. However the confluence of his drive, personal life and lack of proper guidance probably contributed to the inglorious end of a great football career. Business interests prevailed and money drove Johnny U to one last attempt at greatness. The Colts should have allowed Johnny U to retire with dignity as a Colt under the terms of the personal services contract promised by the owner. As fate would have it, however Carroll Rosenbloom married Georgia who wanted to be in Los Angeles. Mr. Rosenbloom found a Bob Irsay, an uncouth, moneyed heat and air contractor from the Midwest, who was willing to pay LA money for a Baltimore franchise. The ending of Johnny U’s football career is told laid out in inglorious detail from the unique perspective of the one it probably hurt the most. The relation forward to The Golden Arm Award and the quarterback’s impact on later generations of National Football League players should attract the post Baltimore Colts generation as well.
To some BCBA members this book will be unpleasant. It can be difficult to reflect upon one’s own roles and preconceived notions and realize they were not shared by all and in fact debunked. The portrayal of 1970’s bankruptcy giant Allen Tatelbaum may bring stress. In my opinion Tatelbaum receives a deserving mantle from the book that is hung on a complicated legacy. To others this book may be the Ball Four of this generation, a hard look at a great life with a nod to The Catcher in the Rye. If the book inspires thought and discussion it has done its job.