The Pittsburgh Steelers have a rich history of quarterbacks. Ben Roethlisberger, Terry Bradshaw, and no one should forget about Bobby Layne, who finished his career in Pittsburgh after making his name in Detroit. But the team’s list of “almost-quarterbacks” is arguably even more impressive. Sid Luckman, Len Dawson, and Johnny Unitas were all briefly Steelers before becoming Hall of Famers elsewhere.

Wednesday evening, Steelers’ historian Steel City Star shared this video of Art Rooney Jr. recalling the team cutting Unitas, a Pittsburgh native buried on the team’s depth chart and not given the chance to show he could be ‘Johnny U.’ He told the story in a long sit down with Lee Adams.

“He never got a chance,” Rooney, one of the Chief’s sons, said. “They had Jimmy Finks, a good football player. Teddy Marchibroda, who became a really good coach, but he was sort of a short guy for a football player…anytime it got to be Unitas’ time to do a drill, coaches would just look at their watch and blow the whistle. Unitas never got the chance to do anything. He was the guy who stayed after practice and got all the ball boys and equipment guys and told them just run and bounce the ball off their heads.”

Playing high school football in Western Pennsylvania, one of just many great quarterbacks who grew up in the area, Unitas attended Louisville to play his college ball. The Steelers thought of him enough to make him their 9th-round pick in the 1955 NFL Draft. But Finks, himself a Hall of Famer, was the team’s established starter, making the Pro Bowl in 1952 and leading at least a semi-competitive team, an acceptable bar in that era. There was Marchibroda, the fifth overall selection of the 1953 NFL Draft, and Unitas found himself receiving few reps during the summer.

As Rooney would relay, his brother Tim wrote Art Rooney Sr. a 22-page letter urging him to intervene and force the coaching staff to give Unitas reps. Dan Rooney Jr.’s autobiography confirms this story. But as was his philosophy, Rooney let the coaches coach, and Unitas would be cut.

A year later, with Unitas still looking for a job, Rooney Sr., Rooney Jr., his brother, and head coach Walt Kiesling, who cut Unitas, saw him in town at a traffic light.

“My dad said catch up to him. My dad yelled out the window, ‘Hey, Unitas. You know who I am?’…’I hope you become the greatest football player who ever lived.’ Kiesling is sitting in the back seat and my father looked back and gave him a dirty look.”

Unitas would latch on with the semi-pro Bloomfield Rams while working construction in the city. The Colts invited and signed Unitas from a tryout. The rest is history. Unitas would go onto become the greatest quarterback of his era, helped put the NFL on the national map, and is still regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in league history. My personal rankings slotted him second all-time, only behind Tom Brady. Rooney Jr. would go on to become the Steelers’ personnel director, a key but underrated member of forming the ’70s dynasty.

Moves like those summed up the pre-Noll Steelers. Stubbornness, relying too much on veterans, and not finding top-end quarterback play. That would change with Noll but had they stuck with Johnny Unitas, Pittsburgh’s history would be even more impressive.

Catch the whole clip below. It comes from a YouTube interview of the entire Lee Adams Show that you can watch here. 


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