Johnny Unitas Biography

Johnny Unitas was an American football player who played mostly for the Baltimore Colts in the National Football League (NFL). Raised by his hardworking mother in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Johnny developed a passion for football at a young age and excelled throughout his school years. After graduating from St. Justin’s High School, he continued his football journey at the University of Louisville. Although initially drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was with the Baltimore Colts that Johnny’s career truly took off. He was named the Most Valuable Player of the 1957 season and continued to thrive with the Colts for several years. In 1973, he briefly joined the San Diego Chargers before retiring from the game.

Quick Facts

  • Nick Name: Johnny U
  • Also Known As: John Constantine Unitas
  • Died At Age: 69
  • Family:
    • Father: Francis J. Unitas
    • Mother: Helen Superfisky
  • Born Country: United States
  • American Football Players
  • American Men
  • Height: 6’1″ (185 cm), 6’1″ Males
  • Died on: September 11, 2002
  • Place of death: Baltimore, Maryland, United States
  • U.S. State: Pennsylvania
  • Ancestry: Lithuanian American
  • Cause of Death: Heart Attack
  • City: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
  • Notable Alumni: University Of Louisville
  • Education: University Of Louisville

Childhood & Early Life

John Constantine Unitas was born on May 7, 1933, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Helen and Francis J. Unitas. He was the third of the four children in the family. His father owned a small business of delivering coal, and his mother was a homemaker. Both his parents were of Lithuanian descent and lived in the Mount Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh.

When Johnny was 5 years old, his father died due to pneumonia. Following this, his mother had to struggle to make ends meet. She took over her husband’s business, but it did not yield much returns. Thus, she began working odd jobs to meet the family’s financial needs. Apart from raising four children, she also took accounting classes at night.

Despite having a hard family life, Johnny was growing up to be a tall kid. He was also interested in playing football ever since he was a kid. By the time he was 12, he had decided to make a career in professional football. He was on the football team of his high school, ‘St. Justin’s.’ By the time he was in the final year, Johnny began getting famous locally and was named to the ‘All-Catholic’ high-school team.

He was a little over 6 feet in height but had a thin frame, due to which he had a hard time finding a college that was interested in him. He got an opportunity to enter the ‘University of Pittsburgh,’ but he failed the entrance exam. He then enrolled at the ‘University of Louisville’ and played as part of his college’s football team.


During his first season at the ‘University of Louisville,’ he delivered an average performance. The team management did not trust him enough, and he did not get enough chances to play. By the end of his first season, he finished with 46 of 99 passes, for 602 yards and 9 touchdowns.

By his second season with his college team, the university management had decided that sports expenditure needed to take a backseat. Footballers took the hardest blows, as the scholarships of 15 footballers were canceled. However, Johnny maintained his, by indulging in square dancing.

In 1953, although Johnny’s team performed poorly, he still managed to score some impressive touchdowns. He was elected as the team’s captain during the 1954 season. However, his performance remained affected by an injury throughout the year, which had him stay away from the field for most of the season.

Following his college career, he was drafted by the ‘NFL’ team ‘Pittsburgh Stealers’ during the 1955 draft. However, he faced a lot of trouble and could not play a single game, as he was not considered suitable to be a quarterback in the team.

He was married by then, and in order to make ends meet, he worked at a local construction site. He also played with a local semi-professional team called the ‘Bloomfield Rams,’ where he was paid $6 an hour, on weekends.

However, his breakthrough happened in 1956, when he was hired by the ‘Baltimore Colts’ to play with the team as a quarterback. By the end of his first season, he was the player with the most touchdown passes and the most passing yards. He was also awarded with the ‘Jim Thorpe Trophy,’ given to the ‘MVP’ of the tournament. He also led his team to a 7–5 winning record.

In 1958, he helped his team win a ‘Western Conference’ title. He also led his team to win the ‘NFL Championship.’ The following year, he was named the ‘NFL’s ‘MVP’ by the ‘Associated Press.’ He also led his team to win the ‘NFL Championship’ for the second time in a row.

Although the overall performance of the ‘Colts’ declined in the early 1960s due to the constant injuries that plagued some of the main players, Johnny constantly played according to expectations. He became the top player in the league according to touchdown passes, four times in a row.

In the 1964 season, Johnny led his team to win the ‘Western Conference’ title with an impressive score of 12–2. It was Johnny’s best ‘NFL’ season, as he ended the season with 2,824 yard passing, the league-best 9.26 yards per pass attempt, and 19 touchdown passes. He also ended up with the ‘MVP’ honor by the end of the season.

During a game in the 1968 pre-season, his arm was injured badly. During the subsequent seasons, Johnny’s performance deteriorated. In 1973, he was freed from the contract by the ‘Colts.’ The same year, he was taken in by the ‘San Diego Chargers.’ By then, his glorious days were behind him. He announced his retirement the same year.

Family & Personal Life

Johnny Unitas met Dorothy Hoelle during his high-school years, and the couple stayed together even after they finished school. Johnny married Dorothy on November 20, 1954, when he was 21. The couple had five children. They eventually got divorced.

Johnny married Sandra Lemon on June 26, 1972. They had three children and stayed together until his demise.

Toward the end of his life, Johnny brought the media’s attention to the lack of safety at ‘NFL’ games. He himself almost suffered from semi-disability, as his right hand was unable to perform strenuous tasks.

Johnny died from a heart attack while working out, on September 11, 2002.

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