This column has been made available to Catholic Exchange courtesy of the Denver Catholic Register.
After another NFL season in which game after game featured self-congratulatory end zone shenanigans, readers below a certain age may find it difficult to believe that professional football was once a school of virtue. Yes, the old-timers could be hell-raisers (off-camera, so to speak). But some of them were the kind of men who know that drawing attention to yourself with outlandish antics is for kids, not grown-ups.
I think, for example, of the late John Unitas, quarterback of the Baltimore (yes, Baltimore) Colts when I was growing up.
Unitas, who invented the two-minute drill, put the NFL on the national sports map by driving the Colts downfield to tie the New York Giants at the end of regulation time in the 1958 championship — which the Colts later won in overtime, in what's often called The Greatest Game Ever Played. It was a performance that combined remarkable athletic skill, cunning (Unitas called his own plays), and iron nerves. It's not that epic game I remember, though, when I think of John Unitas as a man who embodied the ancient linkage, known to the Greeks and St. Paul alike, between sports and virtue.
The Colts were playing the Chicago Bears in old Wrigley Field, itself a challenge to manliness: there were, as I recall, mere inches between the back of one end zone and the ivy-covered bricks of the field's perimeter wall, and a receiver who went deep into the end zone knew that he did it at the risk of getting a mouthful of brick dust and frozen vegetation at the end of the play. There were only seconds remaining in the game when Unitas sent Lenny Moore deep, going for the game-winning score — and the pass misfired. Even worse, Unitas got clobbered by Bears defensive end Doug Atkins, who planted him into the turf, hard; and when Unitas was slow getting up, Atkins looked down and said, “Well, kid, that's about it for you today.”
Unitas's nose was cut, blood was pouring down his face, and his eyes were beginning to swell. But he got up, stared at Atkins, and said, “Not just yet it ain't.” After some emergency medical work on the sidelines temporarily stanched the bleeding, Number Nineteen trotted back onto the field in his old-fashioned high-top shoes, called the exact same play, and hit Moore, running flat-out, with a perfectly thrown 39-yard pass that won the game as time was expiring. Now let Unitas's teammate, Alex Hawkins, pick up the tale:
It was the most dramatic finish and the damndest spectacle I had ever seen. Things like this just don't happen; they're caused. The man who caused this one, John Unitas, just walked off the field as if it were an everyday occurrence. No high fives, no dancing or celebrating, no fingers pointed upward designating “We're Number 1.” Here was the greatest quarterback who ever played the game, walking casually off the field, having just finished a day of work. This was what he was paid to do. How often do you see that kind of dignity anywhere?
NBA tattoos, running out a home run “flaps down,” cell phone calls in the end zone after catching a touchdown pass: all of these silly and seemingly meaningless things in fact embody the conviction that sports are a matter of self-expression — emphasis on self. Both the Greeks and St. Paul knew that sports were a school of self-mastery, and that mastery of self was a moral, not a psychological, category. John Unitas was no philosopher, but he lived the truth that athletic excellence — finely-honed natural talent, courage, and teamwork; hard, repetitive practice followed by precise execution when you had one, and only one, chance to make things work just right — is really a matter of virtue.
Virtuous behavior is admirable in itself. That's what Alex Hawkins found so compelling about John Unitas on that Sunday afternoon in Wrigley Field, forty-some years ago. In a Catholic perspective, though, virtues are more than admirable: virtues are the habits of mind and heart that make us the kind of people who can live with God forever. Sports used to teach us virtues. Let's hope they do it again, one day.