The 1959 season was the 40<sup>th</sup> NFL edition of the regular season and obviously the final year of the Fabulous 50’s. The decade started with a merger with the AAFC and ended with two teams that are historically credited with putting the league on the map meeting again in the Championship game. As the 1959 season began the league was struck with the untimely lose of one of it’s pioneer members. On October 11, 1959 NFL Commisioner Bert Bell died of a heart attack while watching the Eagles and Steelers play in Philadelphia. Ironically, during one point of his NFL career Bell was the owner and coach of both teams. League Treasurer Austin Gunsel was named interim commissioner for the remainder of the season.
In 1933, along with two former college teammates, Bell purchased the Eagles. Though the Eagles would struggle financially with Bell as owner his actions were geared towards making the league stronger. Bell is credited with designing the blueprint for the NFL draft that was instituted in 1935. In one of the most bizarre transactions in the history of the NFL, Bell became part owner of the Steelers when Art Rooney sold the team to Philadelphia businessman Alex Thompson, who then traded franchises with Bell. Due to WWII the Eagles and Steelers would temporarily merge becoming the “Steagles.” Without question, one of the strangest team names in the history of the sport.
On January 11, 1946, Bell was chosen to replace Elmer Layden as NFL commissioner and stayed in that position until his death. Among his many accomplishments Burt Bell is credited with the phrase, “On any given Sunday, any team can beat any other team.” Just to give you an idea as to how far the league has advanced over the years, during the off season Bert Bell use to single handedly plot out the league schedule in his dinning room.
The Eastern Conference belong to the Giants and was settled by week ten. The G-Men started off 1-1 then realed off 7 of 8 and finished the season with a 10-2 mark.
The Western Conference was another opportunity lost for the 49ers. It marked the fifth time (1952, 1953, 1954, and 1957) the team had an opportunity to win the conference in the 1950's only to suffer from a late season meltdown. In week six of the 1959 season the 49ers stood atop the Conference at 6-1 and had a two game lead over the 4-3 Colts. Bye week nine, even though the 49ers lost in Baltimore 45-14 they still held a share of the conference lead at 6-3-0. In week eleven the 49ers watched the conference title slip away as they again lost to the Colts 34-14 on their home turf. The Colts would clinch the Conference title the following week.
One of Raymond Berry’s most memorable game occurred in the Greatest Game Ever Played. In that epic 1958 battle between the Colts and Giants, Berry caught a then record 12 receptions for a 178 yards and a touchdown, and during the 13 play overtime drive Berry hauled in two clutch passes for 33 yards. Not to bad for a guy that didn’t start till his senior year in high school and only caught 33 passes in three years at SMU.
In 1954 the Colts drafted Berry in the 20 round, the 232 player taken overall. Thought there are other players that have walked a similar path, some might argue Raymond Berry was the greatest draft steal in the history of the game. Berry became a permanent fixture of the Colts offense by his second year and didn’t miss another game till his eight season in the league. A tireless worker, Berry was said to have 88 different move to get open and once Johnny Unitas became the Colts quarterback those move were put on display. Unitas and Berry were said to have spent countless hours together after practice had been called for the day, running and re-running pass plays to pin point the timing and perfect the patterns.
In his 13 year playing career Berry caught a then record 631 passes for 9,275 yards and 68 touchdowns. More impressive is the fact that Berry only had one fumble in his career, and is rumored to have only dropped two passes that were thrown in his direction.
Raymond Berry is a member of the NFL’s 75 Anniversary team, the All-1950’s team and a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The rematch of the 1958 classic took place on December 27, 1959 at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland and had the makings of a classic itself till the fourth quarter arrived.
The Colts got on the scoreboard first when Unitas hooked up with Lenny Moore on a 60 yard touchdown pass. The Giants answered with a 23 yard Summerall field goal making the score 7-3 Colts. The G-Men would then shut down the potent Colts offense for the next two quarters. Unfortunately, the Giants were only able to muster two more Summerall field goals during that time on offense. At the end of the third quarter the Giants held a 9-7 lead and then the Colts offense woke-up, taking a close game and turning it into what would look like a blow out.
Unitas started out the fourth quarter with a four yard touchdown scamper, giving the Colts the lead for good. He then hit current Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson on a 12 yard touchdown pass. On the defensive side the Colts Johnny Sample intercepted a Giants pass and returned it 42 yard to the end zone. The Colts finished off their fourth quarter scoring assult with a 25 yard Myrha field goal. The Giants would add a late Conerly touchdown pass, but the damage had already been done. The Colts won their second championship in a row 31-16 behind the man affectionately reffered to as Johnny U.
As the first of the great passing quarterbacks in the NFL, Johnny Unitas is the standard in which all the great quarterbacks of the current era are measured. Considering he was drafted and cut by the Steelers before the season even began Unitas is also a profile in determination and perseverance for all young players to follow. Before there was the Cardinals Kurt Warner/Grocery Store feel good story there was the Johnny Unitas story.
After a challenging and productive career at Louisville, Unitas was drafted in the ninth round by the Steelers but found himself in a quarterback battle that included three others. Steelers head coach Walt Kiesling quickly considered Unitas mentally unable to play the position and let him go during training camp. Already married with children, Unitas took on a construction job to support his family and began playing Semi-pro ball on the weekend to keep his skills sharp and the dream alive. It is rumored he played for the Bloomfield Rams for six dollars a game. Even in 1955 dollars that is a merger sum of money, averaging out to $1.50 a quarter or $2.00 an hour. I’ve got a feeling Kurt Warner made slightly more playing in the Arena League.
In 1956, after barrowing money from family and friends, Unitas and fellow Bloomfield Rams teammate Jim Deglua venture to the Colts training camp for a tryout. Much to the chagrin of the Cleveland Browns, who were considering signing the Steelers castoff, the Colts signed Unitas to the team minimum contingent on him making the squad. Though cast to a backup position Unitas would get his opportunity in the fourth game of the year when Colts starter George Shaw suffered a broken leg against the Bears. Unitas would struggle in his first NFL game action, throwing a pick six and fumbling a handoff., though the following week Unitas would begin his Hall of Fame career and George Shaw would forever lost his starting job as quarterback of the Baltimore Colts.
In the last game of his rookie year Unitas threw a touchdown pass that began a streak of 47 consecutive games in which he accomplished the feat. The following year the Newspaper Enterprise Association named Unitas the NFL’s Most Valuable Player, the first of four such awards Unitas would receive. In his career Unitas had 26 games of over 300 yards passing and 40,239 total yards through the air.
We always talk of players or teams taking their game to the next level. In the history of professional football few have transformed the game, or taken it to the next level, than the likes of Johnny Unitas. If I were forced to pick one player that had the biggest positive impact on the game of professional football I would pick Johnny Unitas.
Johnny U. is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame and in my opinion the greatest football player the game has ever seen.
I would like to thank those of you that took the time to read this silly blog.