Review of Collision of Wills

Gilden, Jack. Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2018. Pp. 328. Afterword, index and bibliography. $29.95 hardback.

Reviewed by Bob D’Angelo


University of Nebraska Press, 2018.

The Baltimore Colts of the 1960s could be called the National Football League’s underachievers — or, more charitably, unlucky. From 1963 through 1969, the Colts were 71-23-4 during the regular season, including back-to-back seasons (1967-1968) when Baltimore only lost two games and tied two others.

The playoffs were another matter, as the Colts were 2-3, including stunning losses to the Cleveland Browns in the 1964 NFL championship game and in January 1969 to the upstart New York Jets of the American Football League in Super Bowl III. That team was led by Don Shula, a young, up-and-coming firebrand who would win more games than any other NFL coach and would preside over the league’s only perfect season. Shula had at his disposal the greatest quarterback in the game — Johnny Unitas, who had two NFL titles under his belt and was the league’s most dangerous passer. Oddly, that combination never totally clicked in Baltimore. Certainly, there was success, but the Colts always seemed to come up short when it counted the most. In part, it was because of the struggle for control between the coach and his quarterback. That is the premise in Jack Gilden’s absorbing book, Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL. Gilden, a Baltimore native, peels back the fog of 1960s football to bring two giants of the game into sharper focus. We see Unitas and Shula as they really were, and not always in a favorable light.

Gilden crafted his narrative on the strength of 30 interviews with players, coaches, family members and journalists, including chats with Shula and Unitas’ daughter, Jan Unitas. Gilden doesn’t just limit his interviews to members of the Colts family; he spoke with Gary Collins, the Browns’ wide receiver who befuddled Baltimore in the 1964 NFL title game; and Joe Namath, who “guaranteed” a victory before Super Bowl III and then delivered on his promise.

Unitas remains a revered figure among his teammates, who still have photos of No. 19 in their homes, years after his death in 2002. Unitas, with his brush crew cut and cold stare, was the NFL’s Most Valuable Player three times and could pick a defense apart. Shula has not coached a game since 1995, but the granite jaw and white-hot intensity remains embedded in the memory of pro football fans. His wrath could find a player or official — remember Shula grabbing his throat in a “you choked” gesture to a referee on a Monday night game against Philadelphia in 1981? He also could catch a team napping, as he did against San Diego in a playoff game in 1982, when he had Don Strock throw a pass to Duriel Harris with six second left in the first half. As defenders converged, Harris caught the ball and flipped it to running back Tony Nathan, trailing on the play. Nathan completed the “87 circle curl lateral” for a touchdown that shook the old Orange Bowl. And of course, 17-0 in 1972 — the only undefeated, untied season in NFL history. Unitas and Shula “should have appreciated each other,” Gilden writes (p. 131). Unitas won two MVP awards while playing for Shula, but Unitas’ performances “were the key factors” in Shula’s success (p. 132).

Despite his impassive mask, Unitas had a fragile ego that was wounded by what he perceived as disrespect and meddling by Shula. Even the coach admitted as much to Gilden, noting that “I was so intense in what I was doing, sometimes I didn’t handle it as well as I should have.” (p. 134). As Tom Callahan notes in his 2006 book, Johnny U, Unitas and Shula had “the same attitude about work, the same competitive spirit, the same tunnel vision, the same stubbornness, the same bluntness.” The difference was that Shula was louder, and Unitas detested that. Gilden expands on those traits and that tension more completely in Collision of Wills.

Gilden’s research takes the reader through the Colts’ highs and agonizing lows. Baltimore reached the NFL championship game in 1964 before losing to the underdog Cleveland Browns, dropped a bizarre playoff game to Green Bay in 1965, and were shut out of the playoffs in 1967 despite an 11-1-2 record. The team went 15-1 in 1968 to win the NFL title but then lost to the Jets in Super Bowl III. Despite Shula’s obvious pride in the Miami Dolphins’ perfect season, the Colts’ 26-2-2 record in the NFL during the 1967-1968 seasons might have been more impressive. The Colts were facing legendary teams — the Green Bay Packers, Cleveland Browns, Los Angeles Rams and the Dallas Cowboys — and beating them handily, except for a loss to the Rams in 1967 and a defeat to the Browns in 1968.

Gilden blends the Colts’ 1968 success with the tumultuous year that faced the United States. The Vietnam War polarized the United States, Gilden writes, and the two teams that would meet in Super Bowl III mirrored the schism that split the country. On one side were the Colts, coached by Shula — Unitas was hurt for much of the season, so journeyman Earl Morrall was put in charge — while on the other side were the Jets, the anti-establishment, cool team from the renegade AFL. He further plumbs the social upheavals of the 1960s, referencing the writings of Gay Talese, Philip Roth and John Updike, to introduce the turbulence Unitas experienced off the field. Admittedly, Unitas brought it upon himself. The quarterback enjoyed playing the field — on and off the turf. Unitas and his first wife, Dorothy, were often presented to the press as the ideal couple, Gilden writes (p. 143). But Dorothy Unitas was independent, outspoken and even profane. That didn’t stop the quarterback from cheating on his wife. Gilden, who relied upon Jan Unitas as the major source for the family’s marital strife, uses a poignant quote from the quarterback’s oldest child to sum up her father’s view of his family: “With my father not only were we not first, we weren’t even on the totem pole.” (p. 155).

Gilden’s narrative is bolstered by the interviews he conducted with players like Tom Matte and coaches like Charley Winner, who are brutally frank but still profess admiration and respect for both Unitas and Shula. Raymond Berry did not want to be interviewed but was prodded by Jan Unitas and provided perspective in his own way; that is, he did not address the conflict between Unitas and Shula but gave Gilden excellent background information. Gilden also notes the emergence of Shula’s defensive coordinator — Chuck Noll — who would establish a dynasty with the Pittsburgh Steelers during the 1970s and win four Super Bowls during the decade. Other characters are woven in and out of the narrative: Carroll Rosenbloom, the Colts mercurial owner; Weeb Ewbank, Shula’s predecessor at Baltimore who outcoached him in Super Bowl III by using a bruising running game and swarming defensive secondary; and Johnny Sample, who shined on defense for the Jets in the Super Bowl but was a former Colts player who had been accused of stealing from the lockers of his teammates.

Unitas, who was inserted late into Super Bowl III, was seething even though his passes did not have the zip he was accustomed to. After the shock of the loss faded somewhat, Gilden writes, Unitas was asked by Baltimore sports columnist John Steadman why he didn’t get in the game earlier. “I would have if Shula’s big ego hadn’t gotten in the way,” Unitas said (p. 282). Shula’s status in Baltimore was shaky after that loss and he knew it. His relationship with Unitas was frosty, and now he believed Rosenbloom was looking for a way to get rid of him, especially when the Colts went 8-5-1 in 1969. Miami came courting, and Shula jumped ship. When Edwin Pope, sports editor of the Miami Herald, somewhat jokingly suggested to Dolphins owner Joe Robbie in early 1970 that he should lure Shula away from Baltimore, Robbie got serious. As Bill Braucher wrote in his 1972 book, Promises to Keep, Robbie “shot forward in his chair and slammed a fist on the desk,” exclaiming, “That’s the man!” The rest is history.

Both Unitas and Shula are members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, each carving out a glorious career. For seven years they both excelled in spite of each other, winning more games than even Vince Lombardi’s fabled Packers. Gilden brings that conflict into sharp focus with a compelling narrative and the perspective of people who admired both men.

Bob D’Angelo was a sports journalist and sports copy editor for more than three decades and is currently a digital national content editor for Cox Media Group. He received his master’s degree in history from Southern New Hampshire University in May 2018. He is the author of Never Fear: The Life & Times of Forest K. Ferguson Jr. (2015), reviews books on his blog, Bob D’Angelo’s Books & Blogs, and hosts a sports podcast channel on the New Books Network.

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