Thursday, May 5, 2016

Johnny Unitas Week: 1973 San Diego Chargers

An Interview with David Plaut

By Chris Willis

On January 22, 1973 the unthinkable happened in Baltimore. On that day the Colts traded Johnny Unitas to the San Diego Chargers.

After 17 seasons wearing the Colts horseshoe on the side of his helmet Unitas was sent packing to the west coast. Unitas, who had completed 2,796 passes for 39,768 yards and 287 touchdowns for the Colts, was now going to wear the powder blue of the Chargers. The man who had led the Colts to three world championships in 1958, 1959 and 1970 was heading to the beach and sun of California.

The NFL’s greatest quarterback was dealt away by Colts General Manager Joe Thomas, a very unlikeable man who once had a successful track record of building teams with the Miami Dolphins and Minnesota Vikings. But he wanted nothing to do with Unitas shortly after taking the job in 1972. So after that season Thomas traded away the Colts greatest player. He dealt the iconic player to the Chargers for just a bag of footballs or something close. In the 1973 Chargers Media Guide it says that Unitas was traded for cash- $150,000.
Johnny Unitas and his wife Sandy posing with Chargers Head Coach Harland Svare
Credit: 1973 San Diego Chargers Media Guide
In San Diego, Chargers owner Gene Klein wanted a big name to help sell tickets. He got it with acquiring number 19. Season tickets shot through the roof when he arrived. Harland Svare, who played against Unitas in the 1958 Championship Game when he was a Giants linebacker, was his head coach. Svare, who was forty-two years old was just two years older than the forty year-old Unitas. “The Chargers are honored and proud to acquire John Unitas, the greatest quarterback ever to play the game,” said Svare to the local press. The Chargers Offensive Coordinator was another old Giants player from the 1958 Championship Game, Bob Schnelker. Unitas would not get along with his O.C.

1973 Chargers Summer Camp

When Unitas arrived at training camp in 1973 one of the Chargers summer employees was David Plaut, a 19-year old college student, who currently for the past four decades has worked as an Emmy-winner producer at NFL Films. Plaut had worked the previous two summers as a jack-of-all-trades administrative assistant.

    “I started working for the Chargers my senior year in high which was 1971. I was actually hired by Sid Gillman.  My dad was with the United Way and they were partners with the NFL, making public service spots and the Chargers were active with both entities. So he knew the public relations director and I needed a summer job and I wanted to do something that would be fun, so I asked him to contact the Chargers. So he arranged me to meet Sid Gillman, the Hall of Fame coach, one of my all-time idols, father of the modern passing game, hired me as an administrative assistant.

Johnny Unitas in United Way Ad that appeared on the back of the 1974
San Diego Chargers Media Guide
Credit: 1974 Chargers Media Guide
I was going to be entering my junior year at Northwestern University, so I pretty much did everything with the team. I was the Turk, I actually cut players, I didn’t pick them, I was told by the staff who was going to be cut. I also worked in public relations, I wrote articles for the game programs; I worked in scouting doing files and data, put information together. I drove anywhere, whether it was picking up film at the airport in the middle of the night, or take assistant coaches’ cars to get washed on the Friday before the game, because they used to put the car in the end zone, Dodge was the sponsor cars had to be brand spanking new.

The fun part was in scouting, PR, the late night drives not so much. But being the number one driver I got to know John Unitas in a way that I never would have, had I not had that job.”

The young college student recalls meeting Unitas.

    “Back then, like now, I was a big football history buff, and when I introduced myself to him, hopefully without being too obnoxious, I displayed to him an appreciation and knowledge about the history of the game, despite that I was only 19 years old. I knew all about him and all about his career and the guys he played against, and I think he liked that.

I also, when I would see him, I would call him the “Legend” or “Ledg,” and some people might think that’s a little flippant, but I think he liked it, he would always smile when I said that. I held him in very high regard, it was like meeting Babe Ruth or Jim Thorpe. This was truly one of the great players of pro football history.

I wasn’t nervous around him, he was a pretty easy, low-key type of guy. But we got to become friendly, because I ended up spending time with him with two complete divergent reasons.”

Johnny Unitas with Chargers Head Coach Harland Svare
During the 1973 training camp Plaut’s variety of jobs included keeping stats while the team scrimmaged against teams like the Rams and Cowboys. He witnessed Unitas trying to practice. “I saw him, but it just didn’t seem right. The ball had no zip to it. He had the command and the posture, but the team wasn’t good and he was not the old Unitas.”

Although Unitas was the starter in 1973 he took under his wing a rookie quarterback from Oregon that would go on to have a Hall of Fame career- Dan Fouts. “I liked the way he carried himself. He had real class and real dignity,” recalled Dan Fouts in a 1999 interview. “He was the guy. He was nice to me. He helped me a great deal. But I think the thing I remember is that he was just a regular guy. He didn’t have any pretension. He wasn’t stuck up or anything. He just treated me, a lowly rookie, as one of his teammates. I liked that.”

Johnny Unitas, running backs coach George Dickson and Duane Thomas,
1973 Chargers Training Camp
Unitas tutored the raw but talented rookie. As Unitas got along with the first-year players, he didn’t bond with the veterans quite so well. The 1973 Chargers seemed to be more interested in off-the-field fun then winning football games. Plaut recalls how Unitas found out about his team’s extracurricular activities.

    “If you remember the 1973 Chargers, they weren’t a memorable team, they won only 2 games. But in football history they were a group called the “San Diego 8,” they were busted for smoking pot. Back then that was a huge deal. Today owners would probably be ok if that’s all their players were doing, and in some states it’s legal. Back then it was an illegal substance.

That happened after the ’73 season but the provocation was that the players would light up after practice before their meetings that night, and Unitas was really old school, he visited the veterans dorm and he’s smelling cannabis and its not hard for him to figure out what’s going on. (lot of these guys were puffing dubooies before the meeting, which was probably the reason the team won only two games that year.

But he wanted no part of that, so he bailed out of the veterans dorm, and I was in an area where there was, a television, where I lived and did my work, and there was a cooler that happened to be stocked with Coors beer, and I let I known that whenever he needed a pop he could come by and avail himself to it. I did not pay for the beer, it was an area where coaches often met to decompress after the end of practice. So it was always full when number 19 would come in. He would sometimes because we were on the West Coast, there would be football games on TV, summer exhibitions games that were already starting in the east, it would be only 5 o’clock there. So he would come in and watch the games for a while. So I would sit with him, and he would talk to me about things that he saw in the games, and it was educational for me. He would point out things that players were doing wrong, or techniques he admired. He wasn’t bashful about criticizing a player who wasn’t hustling or wasn’t getting full potential out of his capabilities. But it was a very interesting thing to be able to sit there with this guy who has dissected defenses for over a decade as well as anybody at his position prior to him, and here I am getting these tutorials, they are very informal of course, but it was really cool, that it was just him and me sitting there. So we spent time doing that. To me, I was glad that those guys were lighting up their marijuana cigarettes because that meant Unitas didn’t want to be around that scene.

He was real old school, even though he didn’t have his crewcut anymore, by that time he had grown out his hair a little longer.”

Credit: PFJ

1973 Chargers Regular Season

Before Plaut started his fall semester at Northwestern University he accompanied the team to the Chargers 1973 season opener in Washington against the Redskins. “I did see him play the first game of the year. I flew out on the team charter. They said if I worked the game they would pay my flight from Washington to Chicago so I could go back to college. So I said sure, and he had an awful game, had a fumble (returned for a TD), I know he was intercepted a couple of times. That Redskins were the defending NFC champions, that was a really good team, and they got smoked,” said Plaut.  
The game was a disaster. The Chargers played terrible and Unitas completed just 6 of 17 passes for 55 yards and three interceptions. They lost 38-0.

The following week the Chargers rebounded with a surprising 34-7 victory over the Buffalo Bills, who finished the season 9-5, as Johnny U completed 10 of 18 passes for 175 yards and 2 touchdowns. Maybe there was some magic left after all. There wasn’t.

In week three Unitas had a good afternoon, going 15 of 31 for 215 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, but the Chargers lost 20-13 to the Cincinnati Bengals. Unitas’s 4th quarter touchdown pass to Bob Thomas would be the last touchdown of his career. The following week was supposed to be one of the NFL’s games of the year. Unitas was heading back to Pittsburgh for the first time ever to play the Steelers in his hometown. It would be the last game Unitas would start in the NFL. Against the emerging Steel Curtain defense Unitas was pounded. He completed just 2 of 9 passes for 19 yards and two interceptions. He was benched in the second quarter and replaced by rookie Dan Fouts. “I felt really bad for John. Because to have such a great career and have it end in his hometown, beaten by a team that is going to be one of the great teams of the 1970’s, the Steelers. A lot of irony there,” said Dan Fouts in a 1999 interview.

“He was just taking hits that his body could not absorb anymore. And it was the game in Pittsburgh, when they got hopelessly behind, when he was replaced by rookie Dan Fouts, who had a good game and Jerry McGee, the great San Diego sportswriter who said, “that was the two ships passing in the night, one leaving and one coming in.” Dan Fouts was going to be the quarterback of the Chargers and Unitas was going to retire,” said Dave Plaut.

Only once did Unitas go back on to the field in 1973. In a week 8 matchup (Nov. 4) at home against the Kansas City Chiefs, Unitas was put into the game by Svare. He completed one pass- his last pass in the NFL- for 7 yards in a 19-0 defeat.

Credit: PFJ

1974 Chargers Training Camp

After the disaster of the 1973 season Johnny Unitas wanted to give playing in the NFL one more shot. He decided to come back for the 1974 season. The Chargers had fired Svare and hired Tommy Prothro to be their new head coach. The “San Diego 8” issue was going to be behind them. But when Unitas showed up for training camp he began feeling his age, as his body would not cooperate. During the first weeks of camp Unitas had many visits to the team doctor as Plaut recalls those trips.

“He was injured midway through the 1973 season and didn’t play the last four or five games, and Dan Fouts and a guy named Wayne Clark, were the quarterbacks the rest of the year. But John wanted to give it one more try in 1974. By this time his lower back and a number of other ailments were really causing him some problems. So I would take him to his doctor’s appointments and he would often miss practice entirely, because they would be after lunch or something like that, and he would miss afternoon practice. (or take him in the morning, miss morning practice), this is still at the height of two-a-days.

So sometimes we’d have to drive to see a specialist, and go some distance. I also did this some in 1973, but mostly in 1974. I had to take him to these doctor’s appointments. So I would be sitting with him in a car for 30 minute drives and sitting with him in the waiting room for a little bit longer. Then I would drive him back, so that’s more time I spent with him. And we talked, mostly about football, but sometimes he’d expounded on current events or other things. He wasn’t a big talker about movies or TV shows, but he was definitely a guy who had a particular view on life.

I would ask him about older players, which most kids my age wouldn’t have heard of, so I think he liked talking about them with me. I asked about Colts guys, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, might’ve asked about some of the defenders he went up against, Gene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb, who is a very interesting guy, he was also a teammate of his, as well as playing against him. He gave good answers, I remember at the time he was very candid about their skills and what type of people they were.”

Sometimes we’d see E. Paul Woodard. He was the team doctor and we went there numerous times, and I also had to take him, especially when we were in Irvine, he had to see a back specialist, pain doctor, things like this. This was before GPS, so I would have to look at a map or get directions from the team. There were no smart phones then, and you didn’t want to get lost with number 19, I don’t think he would have the patience if I didn’t know where I was going, so there was some added pressure for me to know where I was headed.

We’d be in the waiting room for awhile. But they didn’t keep Johnny Unitas waiting too long. I felt badly that he was in a lot of pain and his health issues really compromise him but it was pretty evident early on in ’74 that he couldn’t play anymore. So, at camp that summer he announced his retirement.”

Retiring from the NFL

On July 24, 1974 Johnny Unitas held a press conference to announce his retirement from the NFL. Plaut recalls hearing the news while working training camp that summer. “I knew a couple of days before that it was going to happen. I was not surprised. On his doctor visits, you could see for yourself what he had done on the football field in those early practices that there wasn’t nothing left. He couldn’t do it anymore. So he recognized that, he fought the good fight as long as he could and he just said I can’t do it anymore.”

David Plaut with Johnny Unitas at Chargers Training Camp
Credit: David Plaut
That day Unitas spoke to the media about not having the physical abilities anymore to play quarterback in the NFL.

    “I hate to quit playing football. I’d like to play for another 30 years. Your mind is willing but your body wears out.” One reporter asks Unitas about playing one more year, “Too much to ask of a pair of 98-year old legs. I’m taking up time on the field when it could be used for better purposes for the younger people. I tried to work out four or five times but my knees swelled up and popped and were sore. It would be foolish for me to try to do things I once tried to do…Football has given me every opportunity I’ve ever had.”

It was over. Unitas was no longer a pro football player.

Credit: PFJ
Forty-three years later David Plaut recalls that time spent with Johnny U as fond memories.

    “A lot of people don’t remember he played the one year with the Chargers. But I was glad he came, because if he hadn’t I wouldn’t have met him and I really treasure that time I had with him. We weren’t best pals, I don’t want to come across that we were running buddies we weren’t. I was 19 years old and he was in his late thirties (40-years old), but we did spend time together, and I learned a lot from him, and I would hope that he enjoyed my company. I would crack him up sometimes, I wouldn’t tell him jokes or anything, but I would say things that would make him laugh. I really enjoyed having this opportunity to be able to spend one-on-one time with a guy, that other than Joe Montana, Brady or Manning at the end of their careers might be the greatest player at his position, certainly the one who defined what modern quarterbacking is. All the names I mention are successors of his, they emulated him, but there are some people who think Unitas is still the best, although it’s a different game. But he certainly created the modern passing game and the way quarterbacks think about approaching certain scenarios of the game, two-minute offense, all those types of things.

   A lot of people look at that year as a lost year, one which tarnished his reputation, I don’t think it tarnished it at all, don’t think people remember he played that year. So I look at that year fondly because for me personally it was a chance to meet somebody who was the best at what he ever did. I remember Frank Deford in the Unitas show (1999 HBO documentary) who said he was ‘sui generis’ which was Latin for “one of a kind or first of his kind” there was nobody like hm.

    How many people like that you meet in your life. I don’t think I’ve met too many others. I would really have to think hard on that in any field. I feel very fortunate that I was there, even though for him personally it was physically and emotionally painful for him.”


  1. The guy in the b&w photo is 19? wow. must've had a hard life.

  2. 19 or's a very interesting article that gives some good insight into the type of guy Johnny U was. It confirms that he was just a regular guy who happened to be one of the greatest QBs in history.

  3. talk about the preseason game with the rams where Joe Namath was their quarterback.

  4. U is always the QB others are measured against.

  5. Probably better than Hadl. Unitas had better touch...but Hadl did very well . . .but Unitas was special and think he'd have won more games and had better numbers than Hadl

  6. I was a 9 year old kid in that locker room after the Chargers lost to the Redskins 38-0, my father's old Pottstown Firebirds/ Norfolk Neptunes coach Ron Waller was now coaching with the Chargers. I appeared in several movies for NFL Films and told this story, but it didn't make the final cut.
    Unitas was sitting in his jock on a small stool with his face in his hands, looked like he was crying, I went over and asked for his autograph, and he signed it for me. My father was standing close buy talking to his old Pottstown WR Ron Holiday who was now with the Chargers. I asked my father what was wrong with Unitas? he said he knows it's over; I said what the game is over? He said no, he knows his career is over, he got killed out there he knows he can't play anymore. When Ron Waller took over as interim coach after Svare was fired, he told my mother he was going to place Unitas on waivers, when we saw Ron at Christmas, he told us he changed his mind because he didn't want to cut a legend. When Unitas came back again in 1974, Ron Waller was now head coach of the Philadelphia Bell in the WFL, and my father was the QB. In the summer of 1980, I ran into Unitas in an elevator in Ocean City Maryland, he said hi, I didn't mention I met him once in 1973.