Only once in a long while does a sports book come along that captures the essence of the game with a combination of honesty, humanity and journalistic rigor. Tom Callahan's Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas is a stirring and lively portrait of Unitas the man and athlete, but Callahan also captures an era the NFL of the late '50s and early '60s, when the game took off as an economic monolith, and a fan and media obsession. Callahan, a veteran writer who has worked for Time magazine and the Washington Post, spent a year interviewing all the key living persons affiliated with the late, great Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas. We learn about him primarily from his old teammates, a colorful group of rough-and-tumble ballplayers who were united by Unitas' no-nonsense leadership and amazingly unflappable on-the-field style in the course of winning consecutive league championships in 1958 and '59.
Besides gathering surprisingly moving quotes from the long-retired jocks, Callahan provides a play-by-play rundown of the famous 1958 overtime game in which the Colts defeated the New York Giants and essentially launched the modern era of big-money professional football. Unitas' humble origins are covered as well, including the now-famous story of how he was plucked from a sandlot football team and signed with the Colts in 1956 after his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers had cut him the previous year. This book is sure to take its place among those rare sports volumes in which we learn as much about people as we do the game itself.