Thankfully, this weekend, both Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson are once again front and center for what they accomplished as arguably the forefathers of Baltimore sports. I say arguably with intense passion deep within my soul and would welcome any argument against either as the reason several generations of Baltimore sports fans are just that, sports fans.
Unitas and his era in the NFL have been talked about a lot recently as Drew Brees tied Johnny U’s almost 52-year old consecutive games with a touchdown pass record during today’s Packers-Saints game. The human vacuum cleaner or the man also known as Brooks Robinson was honored at Camden Yards on Saturday night during the final celebration of Orioles Legends Night.
Manny Machado, current Orioles third baseman of the future seemed inspired by the ceremony and put on quite a show of his own with the game winning home run in the seventh inning.
After watching generations of fans that never saw Brooks Robinson play, fill with emotion as No.5 was honored Saturday night at Camden Yards, and knowing how I felt as Brees tossed the record-tying touchdown, I am more convinced than ever that Brooksie and Johnny U, are the greatest sports legends the city of Baltimore may ever know.
This season, the Orioles, who were looking for a way to get attendance back over the two million mark, decided to honor each player’s number that was retired by the Orioles during the franchises 58 years of existence with a statue unveiling and ceremony for the fans prior to each game.
The ceremonies would take place in order of the player’s number being retired. The festivities began with Frank Robinson at the end of April and were supposed to continue with Brooks on Saturday, May 12 but Robinson could not attend due to illness and the O’s rescheduled to last night.
The bronze statue unveilings went on as scheduled, Earl Weaver was honored in late June and Jim Palmer in mid- July. Following No.22 was No.33, Eddie Murray in mid-August and then on the anniversary of breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive games streak, Cal Ripken’s statue was unveiled on Thursday, September 6.
While all of these names conjure up warm memories of childhood and great teams of yesterday, it will always be Brooks Robinson and Johnny U that remain nearest and dearest to the hearts of the die-hard “Bawmer” sport fan.
There was Cal and now Ray Lewis, and Joe Flacco but no athlete induced civic pride like No.5 and No.19 did and in many ways still do. Rip Jr. is close but he was not the first.
They say everything happens for a reason, so really wasn’t it only fitting that Robinson’s ceremony was last. After all, Brooks along with Johnny U were our father’s heroes and with Robinson’s ceremony, it guaranteed the forefathers of Baltimore sports would be mentioned in the same conversation for at least one more weekend.
A weekend in which the Orioles and Baltimore’s NFL franchise, the Ravens, are in first place. Unitas, who unbelievably has been gone for 10-years this past September, 11, put the Baltimore Colts on the map much the same way Brooks Robinson did the Orioles.
Growing up as a kid, you rarely heard one mentioned without the other. In fact, during the emotional ceremony following the last Orioles game played at Memorial Stadium, standing side-by-side, Robinson and Unitas threw one last ball. Robinson a baseball and No.19 a football.
Thank goodness that was not the last time the world’s largest outdoor insane asylum saw an NFL football thrown. Robinson and Unitas are always on the MLB and NFL Network when they unveil various lists of the all-time greats.
NFL.com along with the NFL Network does these incredible lists each season. They do the top 100 players, the worst blown calls; the best players at each position and every one of them keep you glued to your computers or televisions once you begin to watch.
Three years ago, it compiled a list of the 10 league records that will never be broken in the NFL. The choice for second place belongs to one of those forefathers and while it cannot be broken today, it has just been tied.
At the time of his retirement in 1973, Johnny Unitas held virtually every career passing record that existed in the National Football League. Baltimoreans have accepted that the NFL has evolved and since that time, most of those records have been surpassed. However, Unitas tossing a touchdown in 47-consecutive games is one that is going to be tough to surrender.
Despite the fact that Drew Brees is a gentleman among beasts in the NFL and despite the great man he is off the field, I still do not want him to break it. The picture of him holding his son as he celebrated the Saints Super Bowl victory over the INDIANAPOLIS COLTS is framed and hanging in my office.
I like Drew Brees and I like what he stands for but sorry Drew, this one must stay where it belongs, and that is with the BALTIMORE COLTS and Johnny U. You can tie, but break it, nope, do not want to see it happen.
It is not even a bittersweet feeling, it is just bitter when it comes to this one.
The record is football’s answer to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak. One that has stood for more than half a century, and defeated the likes of Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Brett Favre, John Elway, Steve Young and, considering his age and health, likely Peyton Manning.
I believe Brees when he says that he is humbled by this possible accomplishment. “When you say that name, Johnny Unitas, one of the greatest quarterbacks of all-time, certainly his accomplishments speak for themselves,” Brees told Green Bay reporters last week in typically modest fashion. “He’s one of the pioneers of this game. To even be in the realm of a record that he’s held for a long time, it’s an honor. It’s humbling.
Brees is in essence a modern day Unitas and I am not crazy for saying so.
Just 32, Brees already has more yards than Unitas, Joe Montana and Jim Kelly. He ranks 10th on the all-time passing list and, barring injury, should climb past Dan Fouts and Drew Bledsoe this year.
Brees is also expected to become the seventh passer to reach the 300-touchdown club this season. Last season, he broke Dan Marino’s single-season yardage mark, and he is the only person in NFL history to have passed for more than 5,000 yards in a season twice. Through last week’s games, Brees has thrown for 300 or more yards in nine consecutive games — another record.
Brees has never won the league MVP, but he has been named Comeback Player of the Year (2004), Man of the Year (2006) and Super Bowl MVP (2009). He earned a spot on six Pro Bowl squads — he is one of only a few quarterbacks to earn nods from both the NFC and AFC — and was a first-team All-Pro selection in 2006. What Brees did for the city of New Orleans, and continues to do for that matter, following Hurricane Katrina is as moving and as unselfish as anything any athlete has ever done for a community.
Oh sure, Drew Brees absolutely deserves to break the record, but despite all of this, I’d love to see his name remain next to Unitas’ and not on top of it, at least with this record.
Unitas and Joe Montana were selected to the NFL’s 75th anniversary all-time team in 1994 as the best two quarterbacks of all-time. It is likely that one or both, will not be there when they conduct the 100th anniversary team.
Although for irony alone, Unitas should be selected, if only for the year the team is chosen in 2019. Some of the greats that will be considered for the 100th anniversary team fell short of even reaching 40 consecutive games throwing a TD pass. Brett Favre hit 36 games, Tom Brady, who may have a shot to also surpass Unitas, is currently at 33, and the great Dan Marion was stopped at 30. Peyton Manning did it in just 27 straight games.
When determining the greatness of a player and their effect on the game, two questions should always be asked. Could that player have played in any era, and could the history of the game be written without the player during their era. The answer for both Unitas and Brees is yes and no respectively.
Unitas accomplished his record during an era when the rules favored the defense. There were limits on how offensive linemen could block but essentially no limits on how defensive lineman could use their hands to move an opposing lineman. Defensive lineman could literally smack offensive linemen in the head. However, there were very little limits placed on what defensive backs could do to receivers before the ball was in the air. The five yard illegal contact penalty never existed and while the pass interference penalty needs to be changed from a spot foul to a 15-yard penalty in today’s pass happy game, the reason it is a ball placement foul is because of what a defensive back had to do back in the day to actually draw the flag.
Today, people actually get probation and repeat offenders jail time for what defensive backs did to receivers in those days.
Have you ever seen the highlights of some of the close line tackles defensive backs made during those days? Did your dad ever tell you the story of when Bears defensive end Doug Atkins broke Johnny U’s nose and on the next play, with cotton balls stuffed up his nostrils, threw the game winning touchdown pass. No doubt concussed as well.
Brees has benefited from rules favoring the offense and coaches who pass to set up the run rather than vice versa. There are speakers in the helmet, and rules that protect the quarterback instead of an era when sacking the quarterback was as lauded as a touchdown.
The Fearsome Foursome, The Purple People Eaters, and the Doomsday Defense were just some of the ferocious defenses Unitas faced and beat with regularity. It is no coincidence however, that one of the above defenses ended No.19’s streak.
Brees is a lucky man. He missed many of the post Unitas dominating “D’s” such as the Steel Curtain, The Orange Crush, and The Monsters of the Midway or even the NY Giants Big Blue Wrecking Crew.
In defense of Brees, he has had to deal with defenses that have never been faster, more sophisticated or more specialized. Nevertheless, I think it is a moot point to argue that today’s quarterbacks deal with the physicality as the ones from yesteryear.
That’s not to say that Unitas was not blessed with some fortunate circumstances. Unitas and the Colts were the modern day New Orleans Saints or Green Bay Packers of this generation back in the 1950s. They were considered as innovative and daring as Bill Walsh was when he instituted the West Coast offense. Then Head Coach Weeb Ewbank built the most pass-oriented offense of his era around the strengths of Unitas. You would be hard pressed to name any of Brees’ receivers or running backs but Unitas had Hall of Fame weapons like Raymond Berry, Lenny Moore, Alan Ameche and Jim Mutscheller.
Brees threw touchdowns to nine different receivers in each of the last two seasons; Unitas used just seven total during the length of his streak. Raymond Berry (38 TD catches), and Lenny Moore (27), were Unitas' favorite targets.
When Unitas led the NFL with 32 passing touchdowns in 1959, Bobby Layne finished second with only 20. In 1957, when Unitas led the league with 24 passing touchdowns, the Chicago Bears threw for just seven touchdowns the whole year. The Browns threw just 12 touchdowns in 1957, and they went 9-2-1 and played in the NFL Championship Game with a little help from Jim Brown.
The truth of the matter is, most teams just did not throw the ball very much back then. Vince Lombardi used to preach that only three things could happen when you threw the ball and two of them were bad. Unitas and Eubank felt differently. Unitas first pass and touchdown was to J.C Caroline, he just happened to play for the Chicago Bears. Obviously, Unitas rebounded much the same way Brooks Robinson did. Robinson played in just 71-games for the big club during his first three seasons and had just 41 hits during that span bating a paltry .224.
Remarkably and despite the difference in eras, the numbers Unitas and Brees share during their streaks are eerily similar. Brees’ streak started when he tossed four touchdowns during a 48-27 win over the New York Giants in New Orleans on Oct. 18, 2009. He has tossed two-plus TDs in 33 games, and eight times threw four or more scores. Brees has 113 (as of today) overall touchdowns during his run-up to the record and the Saints are 32-14.
Unitas' remarkable feat began during his rookie campaign with a 31-7 loss to the Los Angeles Rams at the LA Coliseum on December 9, 1956. Unitas hit Jim Mutscheller on a three-yard touchdown pass for the Colts only score of the game. Unitas would go onto throw for two-plus touchdowns in 32 games and four touchdowns in seven contests.
No.19 completed 697 passes for 10,645 yards and 102 touchdowns during the next 47 games. The Colts were 28-19 during the streak and won two world championships. Remarkably, the streak ended against the same team and place in which it began. Number 48 never happened, as the Colts were beaten 10-3 on Dec. 11, 1960, at the Los Angeles Coliseum vs. the Rams. Now that Brees has tied Unitas, we must hold our breath for two weeks as the Saints will enter a much needed bye week after their game in Green Bay.
When Brees and his 0-4 Saints return on October 13, they will be in Tampa Bay to play the Buccaneers. I am not feeling much better about Unitas staying on top of the list with the Bucs on the horizon.
Brees has 25 touchdown passes and a QB rating of 95.3 during his career vs. their division rival. They say that records are made to be broken, and despite the NFL Networks Top 10 show stating this record was the second least likely record to fall in the history of the game, it no doubt will on that day.
Johnny Unitas and Brooks Robinson were my heroes and I was fortunate to have met both on several occasions. I never saw Johnny U play a down in the NFL but will always know what “Unitas We Stand” means and when it first flew.
That is the purest definition of the phrase” adopting your fathers hero’s as your own”
When athletes were heroes and acknowledged being such, Brooks and Johnny U were two of the best you could find. I was fortunate to see Brooks play a few games and in fact, was in attendance on 33rd St. when he hit a 10th inning three-run homerun on April 19, 1977 to give the O’s a 6-5 win over the Cleveland Indians, the last of his career.
Brooks and Johnny were major reasons why there were constantly “Miracles on 33rd St.” As evidenced last night; Robinson still has the magic touch. Who will ever forget Brooks Robinson Hall of Fame night on August 5, 1983. After a two and a half hour rain delay, the O’s rallied for three runs in the bottom of the ninth to beat the Chicago White Sox and take over first place for the rest of the 1983 season.
Magic, is what these men produced, it is what they did with what seemed like little effort. Just like the final pass Unitas ever threw in a Colts uniform.
On December 3 1972 and the crowd chanting his name, Unitas came off the bench for an injured (wink-wink) Marty Domres to throw a 63-yard touchdown to Eddie Hinton on his last pass attempt wearing a horseshoe on his helmet. While the pass was far from Unitas like, the magic the little used Hinton provided after the catch was very reminiscent of the magic No.19 provided during the previous 17 seasons.
While today is bittersweet, there is good news in Baltimore. Not only do we have these memories, when was the last time you woke up on October 1 with the Orioles and the NFL team in first place?
There was a time when Baltimore was called “Title Town” but that was when the two forefathers of Baltimore sports were still playing.
Earl Morrall, Johnny’s backup for four seasons once said of Unitas "I don't have many heroes. Very plain and simply, Johnny Unitas was one of my heroes. When you think of Baltimore, you think of Johnny Unitas."
Gordon Beard, a retired Associated Press sportswriter, who passed away in 2009 once said of Brooks Robinson, "Brooks Never asked anyone to name a candy bar after him. In Baltimore, people named their children after him.
Baltimore is lucky to have Unitas and Robinson as the forefathers of Charm City sports. However, in the end, time marches on and records will be broken. So with that we say congratulations Drew Brees, and "How bout Dem O's hon"... MANNY-MANNY-MANNY-MANNY.
One thing is for sure; Unitas and Robinson taught all of us one of the cardinal rules of not just sports but life. No matter what, you win and lose with class. That is what makes being a Baltimore sports fan so special, well that, and seven world championships cannot hurt either.