I Had Become Unitas
My “I-did-not-get-accepted” Moth story.
The Moth is a non-profit group based in New York City dedicated to the art and craft of storytelling. Recently I applied for a chance to tell a Big Apple “Moth” audience a personal story — how I have clawed my way to the top . . . kept my nose to the grindstone . . . never given up. The application went nowhere. In essence it described the below.
I was six years old and about to cry.
It was 1964, two days after Christmas, and I was with my dad in the living room watching television and seeing Baltimore Colt quarterback Johnny Unitas slowly, dejectedly, walk off the field, head down, arms crossed over his belly, seconds after his team had suffered a stunning 27–0 loss in a season ending championship football game.
It was my first football game and why I had feelings of any kind for Unitas, I don’t know. We were watching the game from our home in LA, my father was from New York, my mother was from Germany, neither parent knew much about football and both had no connection with the city of Baltimore.
In any event, I remember somehow connecting with number 19 and then spending the next five years watching every Colt game televised in LA.
I also remember telling my parents, at the end of that five year period, that I wanted to try out for our town’s first ever Pop Warner, junior All-American tackle football team and when they said yes, I remember going to the local library to check out whatever books I could find that said something about Unitas.
I also remember asking my father for a football, a spare tire, and a rope. That’s how Unitas got started, I told him, spending endless hours in the backyard trying to throw a football through a tire as it swung back and forth from a rope attached to a tree.
I don’t actually recall if I ever threw at a tire, though I remember my father taking me to a Baltimore Colt training camp in San Luis Obispo, a town located a few hours from Los Angeles. Once there I remember intensely watching Unitas from a far and then finding the courage to come in close to ask for a star-struck autograph.
Looking back, it’s oh so obvious — embarrassingly even — I wanted to become Johnny Unitas. Practice like him, call plays like him, throw like him, even walk like him. Only two things I didn’t want to do. Wear high tops and get a buzz cut. I was living in California after all; not Louisville Kentucky where Unitas had come from and where he had no doubt acquired his liking for these two old-fashioned, career-identifying,1950's throwbacks.
In any event, I made that first ever Pop Warner football team, one of 33, after a hundred had tried out, but sadly I didn’t get to play quarterback. Truth is, I didn’t get to play much of anything that year. I was just no damn good and therefore spent the entire season sitting on the bench.
Yet the next year I was back, the one after that too, and the one after that as well. Still the closest I ever came to playing quarterback was to be assigned the position of center in my fourth and final year.
The odd part of this story is that I could throw, really throw. But I couldn’t run, had no speed whatsoever, and for some reason that I still can’t explain, I could ever remember the plays. So center it was and it all so discouraged me that by the time high school rolled around I hung up my football cleats for good.
But one thing I didn’t hang up for good was the desire to play quarterback like Unitas. And that has meant — ever since then — that if you would give me a football I would throw you a pass. And so confident was I in my ability to hit the target, the first thing I would say to any potential reciever is, “Hey, which finger and on which hand do you want the ball landing first?”
Yet, no matter my always high completion rate, in the back of mind I kept saying to myself if only I had kept playing football. I shoulda. I coulda. Imagine my life if I woulda.
And then, just before dinner one cold and misty night in the fall of 2006, more than forty years after first having watched Johnny Unitas on television, I received a totally unexpected phone call from my son, who was sixteen at the time and someone I was struggling with to connect. He was calling, he said, to ask me to come over to the high school practice field where he and some of his friends wanted to run some pass patterns under the lights.
He had NEVER done anything like that before so I jumped at the chance and am I glad that I did.
What a night. Every pass I threw couldn’t have been thrown any better, so perfect were they that as I walked off the field afterwards with my son at my side, he told me what a great quarterback I was. From that day forward, I never again said to myself I shoulda, I coulda, imagine my life if I woulda. To my son and to myself, I had become Unitas.