Johnny Unitas

Last updated

Johnny Unitas
1967 Johnny Unitas.jpeg
Unitas in 1967
No. 19
Position: Quarterback
Personal information
Born:(1933-05-07)May 7, 1933
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died:September 11, 2002(2002-09-11) (aged 69)
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Height:6 ft 1 in (1.85 m)
Weight:194 lb (88 kg)
Career information
High school: St. Justin's
(Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania)
College: Louisville (1951–1954)
NFL Draft: 1955  / Round: 9 / Pick: 102
Career history
 * Offseason and/or practice squad member only
Career highlights and awards
Career NFL statistics
Pass attempts:5,186
Pass completions:2,830
Completion percentage:54.6
Passing yards:40,239
Passer rating:78.2
Player stats at  ·  PFR

John Constantine Unitas ( /jˈntəs/ ; [lower-alpha 1] May 7, 1933 – September 11, 2002) was an American professional football player who was a quarterback in the National Football League (NFL) for 18 seasons, primarily with the Baltimore Colts. Following a career that spanned from 1956 to 1973, he has been consistently listed as one of the greatest NFL players of all time. [3]


Unitas set many NFL records and was named Most Valuable Player three times in 1959, 1964, and 1967, in addition to receiving 10 Pro Bowl and five first-team All-Pro honors. He helped lead the Colts to four championship titles; three in the pre-merger era in 1958, 1959, and 1968, and one in the Super Bowl era in Super Bowl V. His first championship victory is regarded as one of the league's greatest games and credited with helping popularize the NFL. Between 1956 and 1960, he set the record for most consecutive games with a touchdown pass at 47, which held for 52 years.

Nicknamed "Johnny U" and the "Golden Arm", Unitas was considered the prototype of the modern era marquee quarterback. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979.

Early life

John Constantine Unitas was born in Pittsburgh in 1933 to Francis J. Unitas and Helen Superfisky, both of Lithuanian descent; he grew up in the Mount Washington neighborhood in a Roman Catholic upbringing. [4] [5] When Unitas was five years old, his father died of cardiovascular renal disease complicated by pneumonia, leaving the young boy to be raised by his mother, who worked two jobs to support the family. [6] His surname was a result of a phonetic transliteration of a common Lithuanian last name Jonaitis. Attending St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, Unitas played halfback and quarterback.

College career

In his younger years, Unitas dreamed about being part of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, but when he tried out for the team, coach Frank Leahy said that he was just too skinny and he would "get murdered" if he was put on the field.

Instead, he attended the University of Louisville. In his four-year career as a Louisville Cardinal, Unitas completed 245 passes for 3,139 yards and 27 touchdowns. Reportedly, the 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) Unitas weighed 145 pounds (66 kg) on his first day of practice. His first start was in the fifth game of the 1951 season against St. Bonaventure, where he threw 11 consecutive passes and three touchdowns to give the Cardinals a 21–19 lead. Louisville ended up losing the game 22–21 on a disputed field goal, but found a new starting quarterback. Unitas completed 12 of 19 passes for 240 yards and four touchdowns in a 35–28 victory over Houston. The team finished the season 5–5 overall and 4–1 with Unitas starting. He completed 46 of 99 passes for 602 yards and nine touchdowns (44).

By the 1952 season, the university decided to de-emphasize sports. The new president at Louisville, Dr. Philip Grant Davidson, reduced the amount of athletic aid, and tightened academic standards for athletes. As a result, 15 returning players could not meet the new standards and lost their scholarships. Unitas maintained his by taking on a new elective: square dancing. In 1952, coach Frank Camp switched the team to two-way football. Unitas not only played safety or linebacker on defense and quarterback on offense, but also returned kicks and punts on special teams. The Cardinals won their first game against Wayne State, and then Florida State in the second game. Unitas completed 16 of 21 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns. It was said[ by whom? ] that Unitas put on such a show at the Florida State game that he threw a pass under his legs for 15 yards. The rest of the season was a struggle for the Cardinals, who finished 3–5. Unitas completed 106 of 198 passes for 1,540 yards and 12 touchdowns. [7]

The team won their first game in 1953, against Murray State, and lost the rest for a record of 1–7. One of the most memorable games of the season came in a 59–6 loss against Tennessee. Unitas completed 9 out of 19 passes for 73 yards, rushed 9 times for 52 yards, returned six kickoffs for 85 yards, one punt for three yards, and had 86 percent of the team's tackles. The only touchdown the team scored was in the fourth quarter when Unitas made a fake pitch to the running back and ran the ball 23 yards for a touchdown. Unitas was hurt later in the fourth quarter while trying to run the ball. On his way off the field, he received a standing ovation. When he got to the locker room he was so tired that his jersey and shoulder pads had to be cut off because he could not lift his arms. Louisville ended the season with a 20–13 loss to Eastern Kentucky. Unitas completed 49 of 95 passes for 470 yards and three touchdowns.

Unitas was elected captain for the 1954 season, but due to an early injury did not see much playing time. His first start was the third game of the season, against Florida State. Of the 34-man team, 21 were freshmen. The 1954 Cardinals went 3–6, with their last win at home against Morehead State. Unitas was slowed by so many injuries his senior year his 527 passing yards ended second to Jim Houser's 560.

Professional career

Pittsburgh Steelers

After his collegiate career, the Pittsburgh Steelers of the NFL drafted Unitas in the ninth round. However, he was released before the season began as the odd man out among four quarterbacks trying to fill three spots. Steelers' head coach Walt Kiesling had made up his mind about Unitas; he thought he was not smart enough to quarterback an NFL team, [8] and he was not given any snaps in practice with the Steelers. Among those edging out Unitas was Ted Marchibroda, future longtime NFL head coach. Out of pro football, Unitas—by this time married—worked in construction in Pittsburgh to support his family. [9] On the weekends, he played quarterback, safety and punter on a local semi-professional team called the Bloomfield Rams for $6 a game. [10]

Baltimore Colts

In 1956, Unitas joined the Baltimore Colts of the NFL under legendary coach Weeb Ewbank, after being asked at the last minute to join Bloomfield Rams lineman Jim Deglau, a Croatian steelworker with a life much like Unitas, at the latter's scheduled Colts tryout. The pair borrowed money from friends to pay for the gas to make the trip. Deglau later told a reporter after Unitas's death, "[His] uncle told him not to come. [He] was worried that if he came down and the Colts passed on him, it would look bad (to other NFL teams)." [11] The Colts signed Unitas, much to the chagrin of the Cleveland Browns, who had hoped to claim the former Steeler quarterback. [12]

Unitas made his NFL debut with an inauspicious "mop-up" appearance against Detroit, going 0–2 with one interception. [13] Two weeks later, starting quarterback George Shaw suffered a broken leg against the Chicago Bears. In his first serious action, Unitas's initial pass was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. Then he botched a hand-off on his next play, a fumble recovered by the Bears. Unitas rebounded quickly from that 58–27 loss, leading the Colts to an upset of Green Bay and their first win over Cleveland. He threw nine touchdown passes that year, including one in the season finale that started his record 47-game streak. His 55.6-percent completion mark was a rookie record.

In 1957, his first season as the Colts full-time starter at quarterback, Unitas finished first in the NFL in passing yards (2,550) and touchdown passes (24) as he helped lead the Colts to a 7–5 record, the first winning record in franchise history. At season's end, Unitas received the Jim Thorpe Trophy as the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the Newspaper Enterprise Association (NEA).

1958: "The Greatest Game Ever Played"

Unitas continued his prowess in 1958 passing for 2,007 yards and 19 touchdowns as the Colts won the Western Conference title. The Colts won the NFL championship under his leadership on December 28, 1958, by defeating the New York Giants 23–17 in sudden death overtime on a touchdown by fullback Alan Ameche. It was the first overtime game in NFL history, and is often referred to as the "greatest game ever played". The game, nationally televised by NBC, has been credited for sparking the rise in popularity of professional football during the 1960s. [14]

1959 MVP season

In 1959, Unitas was named the NFL's MVP by the Associated Press (AP) for the first time, [lower-alpha 2] as well as United Press International's player of the year, after leading the NFL in passing yards (2,899), touchdown passes (32), and completions (193). He then led the Colts to a repeat championship, beating the Giants again 31–16 in the title game. [19]

Beginning of the 1960s

As the 1960s began, the Colts' fortunes (and win totals) declined. Injuries to key players such as Alan Ameche, Raymond Berry, and Lenny Moore were a contributing factor. [20] Unitas's streak of 47 straight games with at least one touchdown pass ended against the Los Angeles Rams in week 11 of the 1960 season. [21] In spite of this, he topped the 3,000-yard passing mark for the first time and led the league in touchdown passes for the fourth consecutive season.

Unitas signing an autograph in 1964 JohnnyUnitasSignAutograph1964.jpg
Unitas signing an autograph in 1964

After three middle-of-the-pack seasons, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom fired Weeb Ewbank and replaced him with Don Shula, who at the time was the youngest head coach in NFL history (33 years of age when he was hired). The Colts finished 8–6 in Shula's first season at the helm, good enough for only third place in the NFL's Western Conference, but they did end the season on a strong note by winning their final three games. [20] The season was very successful for Unitas personally, as he led the NFL in passing yards with a career-best total of 3,481 and also led in completions with 237.

1964 MVP season

In the 1964 season the Colts returned to the top of the Western Conference. After dropping their season opener to the Minnesota Vikings, the Colts ran off 10 straight victories to finish with a 12–2 record. The season was one of Unitas's best as he finished with 2,824 yards passing, a league-best 9.26 yards per pass attempt, 19 touchdown passes and only 6 interceptions. He was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player by the AP and UPI for a second time. However, the season ended on a disappointing note for the Colts as they were upset by the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL Championship Game, losing 27–0.

Unitas resumed his torrid passing in 1965, throwing for 2,530 yards, 23 touchdowns and finishing with a league-high and career-best 97.1 passer rating. But he was lost for the balance of the season due to a knee injury in a week 12 loss to the Bears. Backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo also suffered a season-ending injury the following week, and running back Tom Matte filled in as the emergency quarterback for the regular season finale and in a playoff loss to the Packers. The Colts and Packers finished in a tie for first place in the Western Conference and a one-game playoff was played in Green Bay to decide who would be the conference representative in the 1965 NFL Championship Game. The Colts lost in overtime 13–10 due in large part to a game-tying field goal by Don Chandler that many[ who? ] say was incorrectly ruled good.

Unitas, healthy once more, threw for 2,748 yards and 22 touchdowns in 1966 in a return to Pro Bowl form. However, he posted a league-high 24 interceptions.

1967 MVP season

After once again finishing second in the Western Conference in 1966, the Colts rebounded to finish 11–1–2 in 1967 tying the Los Angeles Rams for the NFL's best record. In winning his third MVP award from the AP and UPI in 1967 (and his second from the NEA), Unitas had a league-high 58.5 completion percentage and passed for 3,428 yards and 20 touchdowns. [22] He openly complained about having tennis elbow [23] and he threw eight interceptions and only three touchdown passes in the final five games. Once again, the season ended in loss for the Colts, as they were shut out of the newly instituted four-team NFL playoff after losing the divisional tiebreaker to the Rams, a 34–10 rout in the regular season finale.

Super Bowls and final Colt years

In the final game of the 1968 preseason, the muscles in Unitas's arm were torn when he was hit by a member of the Dallas Cowboys defense. Unitas wrote in his autobiography that he felt his arm was initially injured by the use of the "night ball" that the NFL was testing for better TV visibility during night games. In a post-game interview the previous year, he noted having constant pain in his elbow for several years prior. [24] He would spend most of the season sitting on the bench. The Colts still marched to a league-best 13–1 record behind backup quarterback and ultimate 1968 NFL MVP Earl Morrall. Although he was injured through most of the season, Unitas came off the bench to play in Super Bowl III, the famous game where Joe Namath guaranteed a New York Jets win despite conventional wisdom. Unitas's insertion was a desperation move in an attempt to retrieve dominance of the NFL over the upstart AFL. Although the Colts won an NFL Championship in 1968, they lost the Super Bowl to the AFL Champion New York Jets, thus becoming the first-ever NFL champions that were not also deemed world champions. Unitas helped put together the Colts' only score, a touchdown late in the game. Unitas also drove the Colts into scoring position following the touchdown and successful onside kick, but head coach Don Shula eschewed a field goal attempt, which (if successful) would have cut the Jets' lead to 16–10. Despite not playing until late in the third quarter, he still finished the game with more passing yards than the team's starter, Earl Morrall.

After an off-season of rehabilitation on his elbow, Unitas rebounded in 1969, passing for 2,342 yards and 12 touchdowns with 20 interceptions. But the Colts finished with a disappointing 8–5–1 record, and missed the playoffs. [25]

In 1970, the NFL and AFL had merged into one league, and the Colts moved to the new American Football Conference, along with the Cleveland Browns and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He threw for 2,213 yards and 14 touchdowns while leading the Colts to an 11–2–1 season. In their first rematch with the Jets, Unitas and Namath threw a combined nine interceptions in a 29–22 Colts win. Namath threw 62 passes and broke his hand on the final play of the game, ending his season. [26]

Unitas threw for 390 yards, three touchdowns, and no interceptions in AFC playoff victories over the Cincinnati Bengals and the Oakland Raiders. [27] In Super Bowl V against the Dallas Cowboys, he was knocked out of the game with a rib injury in the second quarter, soon after throwing a 75-yard touchdown pass (setting a then-Super Bowl record) to John Mackey. However, he had also tossed two interceptions before his departure from the game. Earl Morrall came in to lead the team to a last-second, 16–13 victory. [28]

In 1971, Unitas split playing time with Morrall, throwing only three touchdown passes. He started both playoff games, a win over the Cleveland Browns that sent the Colts to the AFC Championship game against the Miami Dolphins, which they lost by a score of 21–0. Unitas threw three interceptions in the game, one of which was returned for a touchdown by safety Dick Anderson.

The 1972 season saw the Colts declining. After losing the season opener, Unitas was involved in the second and final regular season head-to-head meeting with "Broadway" Joe Namath. The first was in 1970 (won by the Colts, 29–22). The last meeting took place on September 24, 1972 at Memorial Stadium. He threw for 376 yards and three touchdowns, but Namath upstaged him again, bombing the Colts for 496 yards and six touchdowns in a 44–34 Jets victory – their first over Baltimore since the 1970 merger. [29] [30] After losing four of their first five games, the Colts fired head coach Don McCafferty, and benched Unitas.

One of the more memorable moments in football history came on Unitas's last game in a Colts uniform at Memorial Stadium, in a game against the Buffalo Bills. He was not the starter for this game, but the Colts were blowing the Bills out by a score of 28–0 behind Marty Domres; Unitas entered the game due to the fans chanting, "We want Unitas!!!", and a plan devised by head coach John Sandusky to convince Unitas that the starting quarterback was injured. Unitas came onto the field, and threw two passes, one of which was a long touchdown to wide receiver Eddie Hinton which would be his last pass as a Colt. The Colts won the game by the score of 35–7.

San Diego, retirement, and records

Unitas was traded from the Colts to the San Diego Chargers on January 20, 1973, in a transaction that originally had future considerations returning to Baltimore. The deal's only obstacle was the personal services contract he had signed with the Colts in 1970 which would've kept him employed within the organization on an annual salary of $30,000 over ten years once his career as an active player ended. The pact had been signed when the ballclub was owned by Carroll Rosenbloom who subsequently acquired the Los Angeles Rams on July 13, 1972, in a franchise swap with Robert Irsay. The deal was completed when the Chargers purchased that contract. Eager to sever all ties with the Colts, Unitas signed a new two-year contract with the Chargers on June 8, 1973. He succeeded John Hadl who had requested and was granted a trade to the Rams. [31] [32]

Unitas started the season with a 38–0 loss to the Washington Redskins. He threw for just 55 yards and 3 interceptions, and was sacked 8 times. His final victory as a starter came against the Buffalo Bills in week two. Unitas was 10–18 for 175 yards, two touchdown passes, and no interceptions in a 34–7 Chargers rout. [33] Many[ who? ] were questioning his role as a starter after a loss to the Bengals in week three. Two weeks later, he threw two first-half interceptions, passed for only 19 yards, and went 2-for-9 against the Pittsburgh Steelers. He was then replaced by rookie quarterback, future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts. After having posted a 1–3 record as a starter, Unitas retired in the preseason of 1974.

Unitas finished his 18 NFL seasons with 2,830 completions in 5,186 attempts for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns, with 253 interceptions. He also rushed for 1,777 yards and 13 touchdowns. Plagued by arm trouble in his later seasons, he threw more interceptions (64) than touchdowns (38) in 1968–1973. After averaging 215.8 yards per game in his first 12 seasons, his production fell to 124.4 in his final six. His passer rating plummeted from 82.9 to 60.4 for the same periods. Even so, Unitas set many passing records during his career. He was the first quarterback to throw for more than 40,000 yards, despite playing during an era when NFL teams played shorter seasons of 12 or 14 games (as opposed to today's 17-game seasons) and prior to modern passing-friendly rules implemented in 1978. [34] His 32 touchdown passes in 1959 were a record at the time, making Unitas the first quarterback to hit the 30 touchdown mark in a season. His 47-game consecutive touchdown streak between 1956 and 1960 was a record considered by many to be unbreakable. [35] The streak stood for 52 years before being broken by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in a game against the San Diego Chargers on October 7, 2012. [36]

Post-playing days

A signed photograph of Unitas in his later years Johnny Unitas.jpg
A signed photograph of Unitas in his later years

After his playing days were finished, Unitas settled in Baltimore where he raised his family while also pursuing a career in broadcasting, doing color commentary for NFL games on CBS in the 1970s. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979. After Robert Irsay moved the Colts franchise to Indianapolis in 1984, a move known to this day in Baltimore as "Bob Irsay's Midnight Ride," he was so outraged that he cut all ties to the relocated team (though his No. 19 jersey is still retired by the Colts), declaring himself strictly a Baltimore Colt for the remainder of his life. Some other prominent old-time Colts followed his lead, although many attended the 1975 team's reunion at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis in 2009. A total of 39 Colts players from that 1975 team attended said reunion in Indianapolis, including Bert Jones and Lydell Mitchell. Unitas asked the Pro Football Hall of Fame on numerous occasions (including on Roy Firestone's Up Close) to remove his display unless it was listed as belonging to the Baltimore Colts. The Hall of Fame has never complied with the request. Unitas donated his Colts memorabilia to the Babe Ruth Museum in Baltimore; they are now on display in the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards.

Unitas was inducted into the American Football Association's Semi Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1987. [37]

Unitas actively lobbied for another NFL team to come to Baltimore. After the Cleveland Browns moved to Baltimore in 1996 and changed their name to the Ravens, he and some of the other old-time Colts attended the Ravens' first game ever against the Raiders on Opening Day at Memorial Stadium. He was frequently seen on the Ravens' sidelines at home games [38] [39] (most prominently in 1998 when the now-Indianapolis Colts played the Ravens in Baltimore) and received a thunderous ovation every time he was pictured on each of the huge widescreens at M&T Bank Stadium. He was often seen on the 30-yard line on the Ravens side. When the NFL celebrated its first 50 years, Unitas was voted the league's best player. Retired Bears quarterback Sid Luckman said of Unitas, "He was better than me, better than Sammy Baugh, better than anyone." [40]

Unitas lived most of the final years of his life severely hobbled. Due to an elbow injury suffered during his playing career, he had only very limited use of his right hand, and could not perform any physical activity more strenuous than golf due to his artificial knees. [41]

NFL career statistics

Won NFL championship
Won the Super Bowl
Led the league
BoldCareer high
1956 BAL 1273−411019855.61,498910547.674.000
1957 BAL 12127−517230157.12,5502417828.588.000
1958 BAL 1098−113626351.72,007197777.690.011
1959 BAL 12129−319336752.62,8993214717.992.011
1960 BAL 12126−619037850.33,0992524808.273.712
1961 BAL 14148−622942054.52,9901624727.166.134
1962 BAL 14147−722238957.12,9672323807.676.533
1963 BAL 14148−623741057.83,4812012648.589.733
1964 BAL 141412−215830551.82,824196749.396.422
1965 BAL 11118−2−116428258.22,5302312619.097.432
1966 BAL 14139−419534856.02,7482224897.974.011
1967 BAL 141411−1−225543658.53,4282016887.983.643
1968 BAL 50113234.413924374.330.101
1969 BAL 13127−517832754.42,3421220527.264.023
1970 BAL 141310−2−116632151.72,2131418556.965.133
1971 BAL 1353−29217652.394239355.452.300
1972 BAL 851−48815756.11,11146637.170.800
1973 SD 541−3347644.747137516.240.000
Career [42] 211185118−63−42,8305,18654.640,239290253897.878.22729

Personal life

The gravesite of Unitas in Timonium, Maryland Johnny Unitas grave.jpg
The gravesite of Unitas in Timonium, Maryland

At the age of 21 on November 20, 1954, Unitas married his high school sweetheart Dorothy Hoelle; they lived in Towson [43] and had five children before divorcing. Unitas's second wife was Sandra Lemon, whom he married on June 26, 1972; they had three children, lived in Baldwin, [44] and remained married until his death.

Towson University, where Unitas was a major fund-raiser and which his children attended, named its football and lacrosse complex Johnny Unitas Stadium in recognition of both his football career and service to the university. [45]

Toward the end of his life, Unitas brought media attention to the many permanent physical disabilities that he and his fellow players suffered during their careers before heavy padding and other safety features became popular. Unitas himself lost almost total use of his right hand, with the middle finger and thumb noticeably disfigured from being repeatedly broken during games. [46]

On September 11, 2002, Unitas died from a heart attack while working out at the Kernan Physical Therapy Center (now The University of Maryland Rehabilitation & Orthopaedic Institute) in Baltimore. His funeral was held at Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore, Maryland. [47] Between his death and October 4, 2002, 56,934 people signed an online petition urging the Baltimore Ravens to rename the Ravens' home stadium (owned by the State of Maryland) after Unitas. [48] These requests were unsuccessful since the lucrative naming rights had already been leased by the Ravens to Buffalo-based M&T Bank. However, on October 20, 2002, the Ravens dedicated the front area of the stadium's main entrance as Unitas Plaza and unveiled a statue of Unitas as the centerpiece of the plaza.

Unitas is buried at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, Maryland.


Unitas jersey exhibited at the Pro Football Hall of Fame Pro Football Hall of Fame (24937139048).jpg
Unitas jersey exhibited at the Pro Football Hall of Fame

See also


  1. Lithuanian: Jonas Konstantinas Jonaitis [1] [2]
  2. Contemporary sources and recognize Unitas as the 1959 AP MVP, [15] [16] while others, including the 2015 Official NFL Record and Fact Book, list Charlie Conerly as winning the award. [17] [18]

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The 1963 New York Giants season was the franchise's 39th season in the National Football League. The Giants won their third consecutive NFL Eastern Conference title with an 11–3 record, their sixth in eight years, but again lost the NFL championship game. This loss was to the Chicago Bears, 14–10 at Wrigley Field, in the Giants' final post-season appearance until 1981.

The 1970 AFC Championship Game was the inaugural title game of the American Football Conference. Played on January 3, 1971, the game was hosted by the AFC East champion Baltimore Colts who played the AFC West champion Oakland Raiders at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, Maryland. Along with the 1970 NFC Championship Game played on the same day, this game constituted the penultimate round of the 1970-71 NFL playoffs which had followed the 1970 regular season of the National Football League.

<span class="mw-page-title-main">Lamar Jackson</span> American football player (born 1997)

Lamar Demeatrice Jackson Jr. is an American football quarterback for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League (NFL). He played college football at Louisville, where he won the Heisman Trophy during his sophomore year, and was selected by the Ravens as the final first round pick (#32) of the 2018 NFL Draft. Jackson became the Ravens' starting quarterback in his rookie season after an injury to incumbent Joe Flacco and clinched a division title with the team, also becoming the youngest NFL quarterback to start a playoff game at age 21.


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