Only one University of Louisville football number has been retired. No. 16 will never be worn again by a Louisville Cardinal because it belongs to Johnny Unitas. As a matter of fact, Unitas did not even wear 16 after he left U of L. The quarterback wore 19 for his entire professional career.
Five games into Johnny Unitas’ freshman season (Unitas was allowed to play as a freshman because U of L didn’t belong to the NCAA), head coach Frank Camp knew he had something unique.
Tossed in against St. Bonaventure when U of L was trailing 19-0, Unitas completed 11 consecutive passes, three for TDs, in a steady rain and helped put the Cards in front 21-19.
But the Cards couldn’t stop St. Bonaventure from kicking a last-ditch field goal and U of L lost 22-21. Despite the loss, nothing could detract from Unitas’ astonishing performance.
“We weren’t going anywhere without him, that’s for sure,” Camp said following the game. “And if he keeps throwing the way he did against St. Bonaventure, he’ll do us a lot of good.”
With Unitas leading the way, U of L went on to win its next four games, including a 35-28 victory over Houston. Louisville was a 19-point underdog against the Cougars.
One of the greatest plays of Unitas’ career took place in that game when the Cardinals were leading 28-21 and had the ball on their own eight-yard line in the fourth quarter.
After two unsuccessful running plays, Unitas dropped back into his own end-zone, sidestepped two defenders and threw a pass to Babe Ray who scored a 92-yard TD.
In the next day’s Louisville Courier-Journal, reporter Jimmy Brown wrote: “If Coach Frank Camp is smart, he’ll take Unitas, enclose him in a cellophane bag and put him away with the Cardinals’ uniforms for safekeeping over the winter.
"They better not let anything happen to this boy," Brown added. "He’s the most colorful player to hit Louisville in a long time.”
Teammate Gene Sartini said: “Back at that time he was just one of the guys. We lived at White Hall. We were a losing football team who used to go out and eat cheeseburgers at the Doghouse.”
“He was really the only football player we had at the University in those days,” said Hugh Kriever, who played in the same backfield with Unitas.
“He was the greatest thing that ever happened to Louisville," Kriever continued. "As bad as we were—and we were so bad that Unitas was on his back half the time when he was trying to get the ball away—we knew how great he was.”
In his sophomore season, Unitas completed 77 of his 154 passes and threw 12 TDs. U of L went 3-8 that year. At Florida State, Unitas had one of his best games, completing 17 of 22 passes in a 41-14 victory.
U of L, though, almost fumbled away Johnny Unitas after his sophomore season. After an administrative hassle which saw 15 players dismissed from school, leaving the Cardinal roster empty, Unitas thought about leaving and transferring to Indiana.
Bernie Crimmins, the Hoosier head coach, suggested to Unitas that he would have a better shot at pro ball in the Big Ten.
“Crimmins checked with the commissioner of the Big Ten to find out if I would still have two years of eligibility left after sitting out the year and the commissioner said, `Yes’,” Unitas said. “It was something to think about. I wouldn’t even have considered it if I could have played one year, but two seasons of eligibility with Indiana in the Big Ten was tempting.
"I wanted to play pro ball more than anything else in the world, and playing for Indiana certainly wouldn’t hurt me there," he added. "I thought about it very carefully.”
But Unitas decided against leaving the Cardinals when he was reminded that Indiana shunned him earlier in his career.
Unitas now holds just a few records at U of L, most of them eclipsed by quarterbacks John Madeya, Ed Rubbert, Browning Nagle, Jeff Brohm, Marty Lowe, Chris Redman and Dave Ragone. He finished his career completing 247 of 502 passes for 2,912 yards and 27 touchdowns.
The rest of Unitas' story is well documented. He left Louisville when he was the ninth-round pick by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1955 and was cut by them in a numbers game. The Steelers had four quarterbacks; they only needed three. Unitas was the odd man out.
“Most of the time they acted like I wasn’t there,” he said. “When I did get into an intra-squad scrimmage, I thought I played well. But I guess nobody was watching. Anyway, I was with them through five exhibition games, and they never put me in for a minute. Not a minute.”
Unitas took a job with a Pittsburgh tiling company following the cut and then he latched on with the Bloomfield Rams, a semi-pro team. He made six dollars a game.
But Unitas didn’t linger long in the bush league. The Colts got wind of him and invited him for a tryout. He made the team—signing for $7,000—and the Steelers made history for one of the biggest blunders of all time.
Unitas was inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in 1979 and his record 47-consecutive game touchdown passes is a record compared to Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak.
Sid Luckman once said: “Johnny Unitas is the greatest quarterback ever to play the game—better than me, better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone.”