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NFL great Johnny Unitas dies at age 69

BALTIMORE, Sept. 11 (UPI) -- Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas, who played a major role in turning professional football into a multi-billion dollar industry, died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 69.

Sporting a crew cut and an arm as strong as his game had ever seen, Unitas became one of the leading sports heroes of his era. The start of his career coincided with the advent of nationally televised games and Unitas' passing skills soon came to represent a new brand of sporting excitement around the country.

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Unitas was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979 after an 18-year career that saw him throw for 40,239 yards and 290 touchdowns. He led the Colts to three NFL titles and once passed for a touchdown in 47 consecutive games.

A spokesperson for the Baltimore Ravens said Unitas was pronounced dead after being rushed to a local hospital.

"Johnny Unitas will always be a legendary name in NFL history," league Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, he epitomized the position with his leadership skills and his ability to perform under pressure.

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"At a time when national television was beginning to focus on the NFL, 'Johnny U' captured the public's imagination and helped drive the growing popularity of professional football."

"I don't have many heroes," said Baltimore General Manager Ozzie Newsome. "Very plain and simply, Johnny Unitas was one of my heroes. When you think of Baltimore, you think of Johnny Unitas."

When Unitas came to Baltimore from the University of Louisville in 1956, pro football was still a relatively unwatched sport.

Although the NFL's championship game was first shown in 1951, it was not until Unitas' rookie year that CBS began televising regular-season games to selective markets.

In Unitas' third season with the Colts, he and his teammates suddenly shoved the NFL into the forefront.

Baltimore won the NFL's Western Conference in 1958 with a 9-3 record and played the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium in the league's title game.

On Dec. 28, playing on a surface made almost rock hard by the cold weather, the Colts and Giants tied at the end of regulation, creating the first overtime game in the league's history.

Unitas then passed the Colts down the field and eventually handed the ball to Alan Ameche for the one-yard touchdown run that gave the Colts a 23-17 victory.

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That game, beamed across the country and providing the kind of finish pro football had never been able to display before, was credited with giving the sport a huge leap forward.

Two years later, the sudden popularity of pro football brought about creation of the American Football League and the sport has continued to grow ever since.

"He was one of the toughest competitors I ever knew, and overcame tremendous odds to become one of the greatest players in NFL history," said Don Shula, who coached Unitas for seven seasons.

"It was his toughness that enabled him to stay in the pocket until the last moment before releasing the ball, and that always gave his receivers that much more time to get open.

"I always felt that he invented the two-minute drill. He seemed to have a clock in his head and always knew how much time he had to work with. That skill was most evident in the NFL Championship game in 1958, when he beat the Giants in overtime in a game that captured the country's attention and helped make the NFL the premier sports league in America.

"He was the first of the great modern quarterbacks, and his performance set the standard for everyone who followed him at that position."

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"His presence in Baltimore and in the history of the NFL is unmatched," said Baltimore Coach Brian Billick. "Much of the success the NFL enjoys today can be found in the seeds Johnny planted in the late 1950's and '60's.

"This is a tremendous loss, especially here in the hometown he adopted and made better with his community efforts. We'll miss him and the support he gave our team."

Although the team for which Unitas played eventually moved to Indianapolis, Unitas gladly adopted the new Baltimore team when it came from Cleveland in 1996.

"This is stunning, sad, sad news," said Ravens owner Art Modell. "He was a good friend, my contemporary. He helped make me love this game more.

"It meant so much to me, my family and our team when he embraced us when we first arrived. He is on the short list of players that you can count on one hand of the greatest to ever play. His impact was enormous.

"He cared so much for this community that he made his home. And he fought for his fellow NFL alumni to increase their benefits and improve their lives. He went out of his way to help (current Baltimore quarterback) Chris Redman. This is a sad day for the NFL community and an even sadder day for Baltimore. Our hearts go out to his family."

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After 17 years in Baltimore, Unitas played one year with the San Diego Chargers in 1973 before retiring.

When Unitas retired, he held the records for passing yards (40,239), completions (2,830), attempts (5,186), touchdowns (290), most 300-yard games (26) and most consecutive games throwing a touchdown pass (47).

Although most of his records have been eclipsed, he still holds the all-time NFL mark for most years leading the league in touchdown passes (4). He threw for four or more touchdowns in a game 17 times and that remains second on the all-time list behind Dan Marino's 21.

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