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During the television era’s first great football game, the 1958 sudden-death championship clash between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts, there were 15 Hall of Famers on the same field. “From last year’s Super Bowl,” asks one of them, former Giants linebacker Sam Huff, “can you name 15 players? Today you don’t know who’s playing for who.” That was never a problem with Johnny Unitas. The National Football League’s first household name, Unitas was the first pro football player to be recognized on a level with Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays. Modern pro football is practically dated from that 1958 game, where Unitas led the Colts to his first championship before a national audience. Amazingly, half a century after Unitas began his professional career, Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas by Tom Callahan, a sports columnist with the Washington Post, is the first book to tell us how and why Unitas became a legend. Callahan’s writing is appropriate to his subject: lean, unpretentious, and to the point. Those never fortunate enough to watch Unitas play will feel as if they have to clean grass stains off their pants. Like most great stars of his generation, Unitas used football as a ticket out of a life of factory labor. He was born working-class in Pittsburgh and stayed that way. But he also learned from his high-school coach that “a quarterback can’t just be one of the boys: You can sit with them. You can have a joke. You can have a drink. But you always have to keep a certain distance.” After an up-and-down college career, he earned his shot with the Colts only after being dumped by the Pittsburgh Steelers. He came of age when the passing game was capturing the imagination of television viewers, when quarterbacks called their own plays, and when players’ styles weren’t subordinate to a brain trust of coaches. Unitas would flourish playing for Weeb Ewbank, winning two championships for a coach smart enough to know that Unitas called a better game than he could; the QB chafed under the micromanagement of Don Shula, who outsmarted himself by not turning Unitas loose during big games. Callahan makes the case that it was Unitas, with his laserlike passing skill and riverboat gambler’s flair on the field, who helped change all that by ushering football into the big-money TV era. From the late ’50s until the 1970 NFL merger, the game was played by men whose names now sound mythical—men like Jim Brown, Alex Karras, Y.A. Tittle, and Frank Gifford, men who were paid not much better than Wal-Mart employees are today. “The time,” as Callahan writes, “was different. The players lived next door to the fans, literally. There wasn’t a financial gulf, a cultural gulf, or any other kind of gulf between them.” And as much as he changed the game, making it glitzier and more sophisticated, off the field Unitas remained unaffected, with his crew cut and high-top black shoes. He never felt the need to unburden himself to the public. When a sportswriter dryly inquired if he had written his own autobiography, he replied, “Hell, I didn’t even read it.” And he always kept that certain distance: “Playing with Johnny Unitas,” one of his All-Pro receivers, John Mackey, once said, “was like being in the huddle with God.” —Allen Barra