With the Pittsburgh Steelers starting training camp this week, we look back at one of the dumbest decisions in team history: The release of Johnny Unitas. While most look back at the decision to not draft Pitt legend Dan Marino as the team’s biggest mistake, the release of Unitas could be argued as a worse decision considering he was already on the team.
Steelers Owner Dan Rooney and Johnny Unitas
In the Summer of 1946, the Pittsburgh Press ran a headline: “North Catholic Halfback Problems Are Over – Dan Rooney Is Coming”
Like his father before him, Dan Rooney was an exceptional athlete and he lived and breathed football. He worked the Steelers camps under Jock Sutherland doing anything that was needed, from moving team equipment to lugging heavy bags of laundry. Rooney sponged up every bit of football knowledge from the master coach and applied it to his own game. His detailed understanding impressed the coaches so much that they quickly moved the freshman to JV, and he quickly became the starting halfback. But it did not stop there, as the coaches recognized Rooney’s all-around talent and tried an experiment with him playing quarterback/halfback. Three weeks after a 6-TD performance, Rooney was moved up again to the varsity team.
By the time he was a senior, Rooney was a bona-fide star as he led powerhouse North Catholic to the City Catholic Championship. But when the 1949-50 All-Catholic team was named, Rooney was only the 2nd team QB. The 1st team honors went to the “B-League” St. Justin’s QB named Johnny Unitas.
Rooney never played against Unitas, as he was unable to play in the only exhibition game between the two schools. But Unitas dismantled and embarrassed the mighty North Catholic – something that Rooney never forgot as he watched the game film.
Considered too small
Unitas came from a true blue-collar Pittsburgh family if there ever was one. His father died when he was five and his mother worked two jobs to keep her five children fed and a roof over their head. He wore the same hand-me-down shirt and pants to school every day. He was extremely small and skinny (5’11” & 130 pounds) and it caused many big football colleges to pass on him, despite recognizing his talent. His academic struggles did not help, as the University of Pittsburgh offered him a scholarship, but he was unable to pass the entrance exam. Unitas would attend and excel for the University of Louisville, throwing for 3,000 yards as a senior despite playing on a hairline fracture in his ankle that forced him into wearing the high-top shoes that would become his trademark. But when the 1955 NFL Draft came, he was not an anyone’s radar.
The 9th Round Pick
Dan Rooney was co-managing the Steelers drafts with Ray Byrne during that time and while they still had to gain approval of Art Rooney and Walt Kiesling, they generally deferred to their judgment. Dan Rooney knew how good Unitas was and with pick 102, Unitas was selected. Kiesling thought they were nuts. Though he grew and filled out, he was still scrawny. But that didn’t even matter, as Kiesling considered him “too dumb to play.”
Kiesling was a very smart guy himself, but perhaps too much for his own good. When he got an idea, he latched on to it like a pit bull and no one could change his mind. And his mind was made up about Unitas. Despite doing everything asked of him and even with a desperate attempt from a then 23-year-old Dan Rooney trying to convince a Hall of Famer about a football decision, no one could persuade him different. And Art Rooney refused to interfere with his coaches decision.
“He’ll never amount to anything.”
Despite knowing all along his decision, Kiesling did not let Unitas go until after the final preseason game, leaving him without any chance to sign with another team. Dan Rooney confirmed that Unitas unloaded on Kiesling when he was cut as he wasn’t even given a chance. With his NFL hopes all but crushed and a wife and new baby to support, Unitas grabbed onto a job with a steel mill and played semi-pro football with the Bloomfield Rams.
Sometime later, Dan Rooney recanted a story about a chance encounter with Unitas while driving his father and Kiesling:
A car sped past us. I recognized Unitas’s distinctive flat-topped crew cut and prominent ears. “That’s John Unitas in that car,” I said. “Catch him!” Dad said. At the next red light I pulled up next to him. I could see John had his wife, Dorothy, and their daughter, Anna, with him. Dad rolled down his window and yelled out, “John!” “How are you doing, Mr. Rooney?” “I hope you catch on with a team and have a great career!” “Thank you, Mr. Rooney,” John replied, genuinely pleased. Kies slumped in the back seat, looking like he’d just swallowed a large spoonful of vinegar, and growled, “He’ll never amount to anything.” The light changed and we both pulled off, going our separate ways.
When Unitas got his chance
A testament to never giving up, Unitas wrote to every team begging for a tryout. The Baltimore Colts were looking for a backup to their high-profile rookie QB George Shaw and decided to give Unitas a try. He made the team and when a knee injury ended Shaw’s season in 1956, Unitas got the call. The rest is history.
Unitas rewrote the record book and put numbers up that even many QBs of the current era cannot match – exceeding 40,000 yards and 290 TDs. He led the Colts to a victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 Championship Game – which has long held the distinction of “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” It was the first NFL Championship game ever televised and it went to sudden death overtime. Unitas was the star as he set a championship game record with 349 yards passing as he led the comeback win. With 45 million people watching, it launched the popularity of Pro Football in America which hasn’t stopped since.
Among those 45 million were the Rooney family. Dan Rooney watched and lamented how they ever let him get away, but it was a matter of him being right and Kiesling and AJR being wrong.
Other Steelers History Stories
- How The Pittsburgh Steelers Came to Be – Art Rooney
- How a day at Saratoga saved the Pittsburgh Steelers
- When Art Rooney played a prank on George Halas
- Byron “Whizzer” White and “Bullet” Bill Dudley: The Steelers first Franchise Players
- The Pennsylvania Polka – When Art Rooney sold the Steelers
- When Art Rooney was offered the chance to buy the New York Yankees
- What might have been – Jock Sutherland
- Same Old Steelers – “Rogel up the Middle”
- Why the Steelers cut Johnny Unitas
Thoughts or comments? Leave one below.