Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL (University of Nebraska Press, 2018)
Jack Gilden
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The 1960s was a pivotal era in pro football history. The NFL, entering its fifth decade, was challenged by the upstart AFL in a conflict that pitched the traditional, run-focused older league against a flashier, pass-happy new contender. The rivalry helped turn football into America’s favourite sport.

The Baltimore Colts were a key part of that. The 1958 NFL Championship game, in which the Colts beat the Giants in overtime, is widely seen as a turning point in the sport’s popularity. At the other end of the decade, in 1969, the Colts were defeated in Super Bowl III by the AFL’s New York Jets in a game that established the legitimacy of the younger league.

Jack Gilden’s Collision of Wills looks at the Colts in the 1960s, specifically the relationship between Johnny Unitas, already a legendary player following the 1958 Championship, and Don Shula, a mediocre player who became the Colts head coach in 1963. The two hated each other, says Gilden, and this tension was crucial in a period that laid the foundations for the modern league.

Don Shula failed to win a title in his seven seasons running the Colts but his team was consistently among the league’s best and he was named NFL Coach of the Year three times. Unitas, for his part, was league MVP twice, while QB Earl Morrall took the title once – in the 1968-69 season when he replaced the injured Unitas.

It’s easy to make the case that the Colts were a pivotal team in the 1960s and there’s plenty here for fans of the Colts, or just that era, to enjoy. From Shula’s rivalry with Vince Lombardi’s Packers, to the succession of Colts coaches who would become big names later, Baltimore was at the centre of the football universe.

Where the book is less convincing, however, is on its central theme – about the tension in the relationship between Shula and Unitas. The climax of the book is Super Bowl III, where an injured Unitas comes off the bench to lead a doomed comeback attempt. Should Shula have replaced the struggling Morrall sooner? Did he hesitate because he wanted to prove he could win without Unitas? In both cases, probably not.

Morrall was the league MVP, so keeping him on the field was not unreasonable. Moreover, everyone quoted acknowledges that Unitas came into the game as a shadow of his usual self and any success he had was probably due to the Jets playing soft defense – allowing short gains and letting the clock run. Had Shula put Unitas in earlier, the outcome would probably have been the same.

Gilden offers plenty of anecdotes showing that the two men disliked one another but it’s just not clear that it made any difference. Both seemed professional enough – and driven enough – that they would put aside their dislike in the interests of winning. If the feud didn’t affect events on the field then is it really so important?

A second significant problem with the book is that Gilden seems to lack material. And so we get a five-page digression about the death of boxer Ernie Knox and another, of similar length, about the change in journalism in the 1960s. Later, there’s a whole 20 pages about the Vietnam War. Those three sections constitute roughly 10 per cent of the book.

The events they cover are relevant to show how American culture was changing in the 1960s. At one point, Unitas is quoted as saying that football “can do a lot of good to combat the influence of the hippies and long hairs”. However, in a book that’s ostensibly about a football coach and his quarterback, these topics don’t merit as much space as they get here.

Even on the topic of football, the book has a tendency to ramble. Sometimes, when detailing a Colts game against a particular opponent, Gilden will spend a few pages talking about an opposing player, providing his backstory or looking ahead to how his career would turn out. It all contributes to the feeling of a book that lacks a clear identity. The book doesn’t fulfill the promise of its title, it’s too broad to be a successful deep dive into seven years of Baltimore Colts history and it’s not broad enough to examine football and American society in the 1960s.

All that being said, Gilden is very readable and finds plenty of interesting anecdotes. I found myself interested in the section about journalist David Halberstam, for example, even while I was wondering whether it needed to be in a book about the Baltimore Colts. This is an enjoyable book but one that would have benefitted from a tighter focus on its central theme.

Photo: Matt McGee

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