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Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath: Two Paths of Life

January 1969, two great quarterbacks faced each other from opposite sidelines in Super Bowl III. Both Johnny Unitas and Joe Namath were raised in the steel towns of western Pennsylvania. But they had grown up a decade apart and lived in different moral cultures.

Unitas grew up in the old culture of modesty and humility. His father died when he was five and his mother took over the family coal delivery business. Unitas weighed 145 pounds while playing quarterback for his high school team, and he took a beating during every game. He went to church before every game, deferred to the authority of his coaches, and lived a football-obsessed life. After college he had a brief tryout with the Pittsburgh Steelers but was cut. Then he got a long-shot call from the Baltimore Colts. He made the team and spent many of his early years with the Colts steadily losing. Unitas was not an overnight sensation in the NFL, but he was steadily ripening, honing his skills, and making his teammates better.

He was a deliberately unglamorous figure with his black high-top sneakers, bowed legs, stooped shoulders, and a crew cut above his rough face. He was loyal to his organization and to his teammates. In the huddle he'd rip into his receivers for screwing up plays and running the wrong routes. Then, after the game, he'd lie to the reporter: "My fault, I overthrew him" was his standard line. Steve Sabol of NFL Films captured Unitas' character: "He was an honest workman doing an honest job." Unitas came to embody a particular way of being a sports hero.

In sharp contrast, Joe Namath was the flamboyant star, with white shoes and flowing hair, brashly guaranteeing victory. Broadway Joe made himself the center of attention, a spectacle off the field as much as on it, with $5,000 fur coats, long sideburns, and playboy manners. He openly bragged about what a great athlete he was, how good-looking he was. "Joe! Joe! You're the most beautiful thing in the world!" he shouted to himself in the bathroom mirror as a reporter looked on.

He created an early version of what we would now call the hook-up culture. He told a reporter, "I don't like to date so much as I just like to kind of, you know, run into something, man." He embodied the autonomy ethos that was beginning to sweep through the country. "I believe in letting a guy live the way he wants to if he doesn't hurt anyone. I feel that everything I do is okay for me and doesn't affect anybody else, including the girls I go out with. Look, man, I live and let live. I like everybody."

Possible Preaching Angles: Namath or Unitas—two great quarterbacks, two very different ways to live your life. They represent two different ways to approach humility, teamwork, service, or the use of our talents.

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