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Conversations with Clayton: Jack Gilden

A talk with the author of Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL.

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Johnny Unitas Photo By David Leeds/Getty Images

In this week’s “Conversations with Clayton,” I had the distinct pleasure to chat with Jack Gilden, author of Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL. Collision of Wills is an instant classic. It is the story of two men’s relationship, their team and the town they represented.

In a wide-ranging discussion, Jack and I discussed his research process, the city of Baltimore and obstructed view seats at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

Clayton Trutor (CT): What inspired you to write Collision of Wills?

Jack Gilden (JG): I am 53 years old. I was first inspired to write this book when I was about 15. I attended a journalism conference for high school students sponsored by the Baltimore Colts. The truly legendary Baltimore newspaperman, John Steadman, was one of the keynote speakers. He worked for the club in the 1950s and covered them as sports editor and columnist for one of Baltimore’s major daily newspapers. He was very close friends with many of the players, including Unitas. I happened to be standing near him when I heard him tell another man that Johnny U and Don Shula hated each other. He said it was something the public didn’t know. I thought even then, “That would make a great book.” It was something I never forgot and when the time was right I resolved to write that book. I did it in middle age because having had several reversals in life I found myself with time on my hands and a passion to do something potentially great.

CT: What surprised you the most about Shula and Unitas, respectively?

JG: There was much surprising about both of them. First of all, it was interesting to me how difficult their careers were. Few football player/coaches ever won with more frequency than they did. Their winning percentage was higher than Lombardi’s Packers and higher than Belichick’s Patriots. They averaged about two losses per year for five straight years. Incredible. But Shula was very young when he got the job and came in extraordinarily high-strung. He was verbally abusive to the players and ran grueling practices. He was especially hard on Unitas. He yelled at his famous quarterback quite a lot and he didn’t mind taking shots at him in the press. And then of course there were the big championship losses that he had to endure for years before he finally proved that he could win the big one.

In examining Unitas’s career, I was surprised to find that he had had three mediocre seasons in his prime, throwing more interceptions than touchdown passes from 1960 to 1962, all seasons under the previous head coach, Weeb Ewbank. Shula immediately improved Johnny U’s performance, helping him halve his interceptions in their first year together. But Unitas and Shula fought all the time for control of the team’s offense and especially the play calling ability. Although Johnny U is remembered as the ultimate old school player, he could be insubordinate to Shula and was described by a few of his old teammates as hard to coach. I was surprised by the depth of Johnny U’s anger at Shula. Once he and his eight year old daughter ran into Shula in their church parking lot. They said hello to each other. After Shula went inside the building, Unitas’s little girl turned to her father and said: “Daddy, who is that man?” Johnny U told his little girl: “He’s just my coach. He’s an a******.”

CT: Can you describe your research process for the book?

JG: There was nothing revolutionary in my research process. I had read virtually every book ever written about the Baltimore Colts. I went back to the newspaper archives and read everything I could there about specific games and people. I found old magazine articles. I watched hours of footage on YouTube. And finally I went on the road and talked to as many players, coaches and family members as I could in person, including enemy players such as Frank Ryan and Gary Collins from the Cleveland Browns and Joe Namath from the Jets.

I guess the one thing I did that some sports writers might not do is I researched lesser-known information about the era. I looked into the reasons why Baltimore had segregated neighborhoods and other issues with racism and how that affected the players. I looked into the signature event of the era, the Vietnam war, and researched the most significant writer on that topic, David Halberstam. I even arranged an interview with Halberstam’s best friend, Gay Talese, for better insights into Halberstam’s character. And Johnny U’s womanizing led me to examine the changing sexual mores of the 1960s. Because the men did things that might seem baffling to younger audiences, I tried to anchor them in their own times and present them in the context of their world. Looking in unconventional places and interviewing people who might seem irrelevant to others added great texture and perspective to the story.

CT: Other than Shula and Unitas, what figure in the Baltimore Colts’ orbit did you find the most interesting to research and write about?

JG: Unitas and Shula’s world was populated by fascinating characters. I loved every single guy I met in the sense that I enjoyed the opportunity to recreate them on paper. They were men who accomplished extraordinary things and they had irresistible personalities.

Raymond Berry surprised me by what a tough interview he was, and by what a deep thinker he was. The old coach, Charley Winner, was one of the nicest men I ever met and an invaluable living link to history. The offensive linemen, Bill Curry and Dan Sullivan, were forgotten greats who should both be in the Hall [of Fame]. I spent the night at Jimmy Orr’s house and he was one of the funniest guys I’ve ever known. Jimmy was one of Johnny U’s favorite targets. His career yards per catch far outdistances Jerry Rice. One season he averaged about 27 yards per catch, the most in league history, but he is somehow not in the Hall. Earl Morrall, the backup quarterback, fascinated me, because he was so incredibly great. He piloted the Colts to a 13-1 season and a few years later went 9-0 for Shula’s undefeated Dolphins. Morrall went to four Super Bowls. He was a back up quarterback and yet should also be in the Hall. And Tom Matte was a running back pressed into duty as the starting quarterback when both Unitas and his back up went down late in the ’65 season. All he did was almost defeat Lombardi’s Packers — in Green Bay — in the postseason.

I also should mention Jan Unitas, Johnny U’s daughter. She gave me perspectives into his character and homelike that no other writer was ever able to present before. She was incredibly generous.

If I had to drill it down to one guy, however, it would be Lenny Moore. Lenny was both one of the very best receivers and running backs in NFL history. He is the most versatile player ever and in my opinion should be considered one of the 10 best in league history. He played receiver as well as Calvin Johnson and ran the ball every bit as well as Gale Sayers or Walter Payton.

CT: The city of Baltimore and its residents play a prominent role in Collision of Wills. If one was to visit Baltimore today, how much of the world that you describe would still be evident?

JG: Sadly Baltimore has not progressed very well since the era of Collision of Wills half a century ago. The city is still largely segregated, though not by law. Racial tensions are still high. Drug use in the inner city is still destructive, as I described in the scene about former Colt “Big Daddy” Lipscomb who died of a heroin overdose on some decrepit block back in 1963. Baltimore, even now with all of its problems, is as good a city as we have in this country. It’s filled with hardworking men and women, great schools and universities, beautiful architecture and an incomparable history. But so much of Baltimore is being abandoned and thrown away. It is a city I love and it breaks my heart to see its stewards failing it.

CT: Did researching and writing this book change your view of Joe Namath, for better or worse?

JG: As a native Baltimorean I had hated Joe Namath for many decades. After interviewing him and examining his career and watching film of his performances, I became one of his biggest cheerleaders. He was a truly great player, one of the very best athletes who ever entered the league. And he was super smart. Like Unitas he was tutored by coach Ewbank to be self-sufficient out on the field, a great signal caller who ran the game. To a large extent it was his personality and also Johnny U’s that elevated the league to what it is today. I don’t think any of it could have been possible without Namath. Unfortunately he also ushered in some negative aspects of the game that we still live with today. He said ugly and unwarranted things about Earl Morrall before Super Bowl III that foreshadowed the kind of loud, brash and abrasive style that later came into the league and overshadowed the events on the field.

CT: Besides Collision of Wills, what other books about Baltimore would you recommend?

JG: Baltimore was the home of some of the 20th Century’s most inventive literary minds. Upton Sinclair, Dashiell Hammett, Russell Baker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, HL Mencken, Frank DeFord, Taylor Branch, Anne Tyler and John Dos Passos all spent significant parts of their lives and literary careers in Baltimore. Anne Tyler, of course, has written great books about Baltimore, but there is no great literary fiction work as representative of Baltimore as, say, “A Confederacy of Dunces” is about New Orleans.

There is some great non-fiction about Baltimore. Russell Baker’s “Growing Up” is a book I love. I also liked “Not In My Neighborhood” by Antero Pietila. It tells the story of neighborhood segregation that began in Baltimore but that was disastrously exported all over the country. If you really want to understand the town you could also delve into the really great work of the veteran journalist Michael Olesker. He is Baltimore’s gem. Try “Michael Olesker’s Baltimore, If You Live Here You’re Home,” and “Front Stoops In the Fifties,” and “The Colts’ Baltimore,” all by Olesker. Another personal favorite of mine is “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore,” by William Gildea. To my knowledge there is no “Confederacy of Dunces.”

CT: Describe the worst seats you’ve ever had at a sporting event.

JG: Old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore had seats that literally sat behind huge concrete pillars. They called them obstructed view but you could see nothing but the pillar. I bought one of those once. Sitting there would make a beer drinker out of you.

CT: When you hear the word “Cincinnati,” you think ______________.

JG: Of course I think of the greatest catcher who ever lived, Johnny Bench, and his incomparable teammates on the Big Red Machine. After that I think of one of the gutsiest QBs ever; Boomer Esiason … a former Maryland Terp.

Go and buy Jack Gilden’s fantastic Collision of WIlls: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL.

While you’re at it, follow Jack on Twitter too: @JackGilden

For more of the same, follow me too: @ClaytonTrutor