Recalling Unitas vs. Shula
Jack Gilden first heard the little-publicized story of the acrimonious relationship between Baltimore Colts legend Johnny Unitas and former Colts player-turned-winning-coach Don Shula when he was a 15-year-old student attending a journalism conference at the former Colts training complex in Owings Mills.
“Even at that time I thought, ‘That would be a great book,’” said the 53-year-old Towson resident. And so it is, with the October publication of Gilden’s Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL.
Gilden said that the subject of the relationship between the two men “haunted” him for decades — through his own football days as a high school quarterback and defensive back, and on through a successful career as an advertising executive. Gilden has also written editorials, columns and articles for a variety of publications and has won numerous journalism awards.
After he sold his advertising firm about 10 years ago, Gilden thought it was time to turn to writing full time. “I was on a quest for a new career,” said Gilden, noting that he hopes this book is just the first of many.
A feud for the ages
A native Baltimorean, Gilden was a die-hard Colts fan (he has since transferred that allegiance to the Ravens).
He was intrigued by the fact that Unitas, consistently named one of the greatest quarterbacks in football history, and Shula, the winningest coach in NFL history, did not get along, to put it mildly.
“If [Shula] was standing here right now, and he was on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out,” Unitas told a mutual friend just a few years before he died in 2002, Gilden relates.
The two men first met in the early 1950s as teammates. Unitas turned out to be the star player, which didn’t sit well with Shula.
“Unitas started his career by facing Shula on the practice fields of Baltimore, when both were hard-nosed young players. His emerging success came at the expense of exposing Shula’s shortcomings.
“The quarterback soon ascended to the top of the profession, while the cornerback faded into obscurity,” Gilden writes. And that early history is the crux of their discord.
“Just a few short years later, in a turn of events that could happen only in the highest reaches of the military or the government, the inept player became the great player’s boss.”
That was in 1963, when Shula became coach of the team. Shula held the position until 1969, at which point he went on to coach the Miami Dolphins from 1970-1995. There, he led the Dolphins to two Super Bowl victories, and to the only perfect season in the history of the National Football League.
Despite their troubled relationship during their seven seasons together with the Colts, the two men also were responsible for much of the team’s success.
In four of those seasons, the Colts averaged only a little more than one loss per season. Unitas won two Most Valuable Player awards under Shula. And Shula won three Coach of the Year awards.
Yet, Gilden raises the possibility that the discord between the two may also have led to the historic championship game losses that longtime Colts fans still talk about — to Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns in 1964, and to Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
When Gilden began writing the book, he saw it as an exploration of the complex relationship between the men. But he soon realized that they were shaped not only by football, but by the times in which they lived.
“The same issues we’re struggling with today — race, war and gender — were the issues our society was struggling with in those times,” said Gilden, who notes that the book isn’t overly political. “It’s not a statement of ideology, but rather an explanation of the relationship of two men and the society they were living in at that time.”
Gilden observes that football proved to be a metaphor for the 1960s. When the decade began, for example, men attended the games wearing jackets and ties. By the end of the ‘60s, they were wearing athletic gear themselves.
More significantly, at the beginning of the ‘60s, there were few blacks in the professional leagues. Echoing the Civil Rights Movement, that too changed as the decade progressed.
To understand the relationship between Unitas and Shula, Gilden interviewed more than two dozen people, including Shula himself, and other football luminaries, such as Raymond Berry and Joe Namath.
Because of the success of their individual and intertwined careers, Gilden calls Unitas and Shula “American archetypes.” He credits them with playing a significant role in helping football overtake baseball as the country’s most important and most-followed sport, a designation which Gilden thinks won’t last.
Gilden likens football to boxing. The latter had been the country’s most popular sport, but began to lose its appeal after regulations were established to ensure the boxers’ safety (or at least minimize their risk of death).
In the days of Unitas and Shula, the measure of a football player — indeed, of a man in general — was his “toughness,” said Gilden. Quarterbacks, he notes, were seen as both “intellectual and courageous,” being able to call successful plays, while knowing they could be violently sacked at any moment.
With changes made to game rules and equipment technology, Gilden believes the game has become less compelling (not that he’s promoting what he calls the “acts of barbarism” the game was once known for). As a result, “I think football may be on its way out,” he said, referring to its top position in popularity.
Gilden has been “gratified” at the enthusiastic response his first book has received. Publishers Weekly has written that “Gilden’s detailed book captures the excitement of the Unitas-led Colts drives and provides a glimpse into one of pro football’s greatest player-coach relationships.”
Former Baltimore Sun sports columnist John Eisenberg wrote, “I thought I knew everything about Baltimore sports after covering them for more than three decades, but Collision of Wills taught me a lot.”
The book was timed to be released at the beginning of the football season. So Gilden is currently busy being interviewed and making personal appearances.
“I’m so grateful that people really seem to be interested in what I have done,” he said.
Moving on to horse racing
Gilden is working on another book now, this one an exploration of the horse racing industry. While Collision of Wills took him six years to research and write, he hopes that his next project can be accomplished in less time.
“The trick, though, is patience and concentration,” he said. “You want to find a big idea that people will care about and that will have a compelling narrative. But you also have to be able to go off in a different direction if that’s where the story takes you.
“The beauty of a book is that the answers don’t have to be quick and easy,” Gilden continued. “There’s room for exploration.”
Collision of Wills is available at booksellers nationwide and on Amazon.com. Gilden will discuss and sign the book at several local events, including the following:
- Oct. 27, 1 to 4 p.m., White Marsh Barnes and Noble, 8123 Honeygo Blvd.
- Nov. 15, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., Enoch Pratt Free Library, 1251 Light St.
- Nov. 23, 1:30 to 3 p.m., Greetings and Readings, Hunt Valley Towne Centre, 118-AA Shawan Rd.
- Nov. 24, 1 to 3 p.m., Barnes and Noble, 1819 Reisterstown Rd., Pikesville
For more information on Gilden and additional appearances, visit www.jackgilden.com.