Jack Gilden is a journalist whose work has appeared in The Baltimore Sun, Chesapeake Life, Style magazine, The Baltimore Jewish Times and Orioles magazine. He has covered a range of subjects, including football, baseball, boxing, often with a focus on the impact of sports on wider society. Collision of Wills (2018), about the animosity between Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas and his head coach for much of the 1960s, Don Shula, is his first book.
Tell me a bit about how the book came about. Where did the idea come from and how long did you work on it?
This story first came to me when I was about 15 years old (I’m almost 54 now). I was at a journalism conference for high school students and heard the great Baltimore sports writer, John Steadman, mention offhand to another man that Johnny U hated Shula. He said it was something that the public never knew. I thought, even then, that the secret hatred between two enormously famous men was a great idea for a book. It took me about six years to research and write the book as I worked on it off and on.
The book’s subtitle refers to “the rise of the modern NFL”. What made you focus on Unitas and Shula as central figures in that story?
I think that there is no doubt that Unitas and Shula were key men in the rise of professional football’s popularity. Their obsession with winning brought out a maniacal sense of competition in many of the men around them. Before they were even together Unitas’s performance in the ’58 Championship Game outshined Vince Lombardi’s Giants offense and perplexed Tom Landry’s Giants defense. The Colts’ games with the Chicago Bears were not only hotly contested, they were brutally violent. It led to the creation and rise of the American Football League, which made the game more geographically widespread, greatly increased the number of fans, and opened the sport up to television audiences, even as a prime time attraction.
When Shula came into the mix as Colts coach in 1963, Baltimore and the Packers engaged in perhaps the single greatest rivalry that the game has ever known. It was Shula vs. Lombardi, Starr vs. Unitas, many Hall-of-Fame Colts vs. many Hall-of-Fame Packers. Neither team could afford to lose more than one or two games without feeling like they would be eliminated from the league’s then stingy post-season structure. It was all highly dramatic and compelling and led to the merging of the leagues, The Super Bowl, and a huge increase in interest in the NFL by American sports fans.
Further reading: Collision of Wills review
How do you think things might have been different if Unitas and Shula had been closer?
I’m not sure that ‘closer’ is the right word but I think it would have made a big difference in the Colts’ fortunes if they simply did not hate each other. As it was, with their interpersonal problems, they elevated the game to very high levels. Throwing out 1963, their first year together, and 1969, their last season together, they averaged 2 losses per year for five straight seasons. That’s an incredible string of sustained success with no parallel in the modern game, not in New England or Green Bay, or anywhere else. Not even in Miami under Shula.
I do believe, however, that their championship aspirations were somehow thwarted by their inability to get along. Unitas won two titles before Shula came to Baltimore. His first year without Shula he won his third title. When Shula moved on to Miami he went to three Super Bowls in four years and won two of them. It was almost as if they were waiting to separate to win it all. Had Shula won his two championship chances in Baltimore he would have surely stayed with the Colts and under his leadership Baltimore would have probably continued as a perpetual contender and would have never lost the franchise.
What did you learn in researching your book that you didn’t already know? Can you share your favourite examples?
I had really studied the Colts and their history closely for years before attempting the book, but of course there were many things I did not know until I delved in more deeply with personal interviews. For instance, I didn’t understand Unitas and Shula’s rivalry as players, first on the practice fields in Baltimore, when they were teammates on opposing sides of the ball, or later, when Shula was a defensive back for the Redskins.
I was also surprised by the ethnic issues on the Colts. Weeb Ewbank’s son-in-law, Charley Winner, was an assistant under both Weeb and Shula. He described tensions between Catholics and Protestants I didn’t know existed. I was even taken aback somewhat by the schism between black and white Colts since in Baltimore we all saw the Colts as integrated and connected, a merry band of brothers.
Every time I asked him a question he would point to his temple and say, “My recall button don’t work too well”.
I was also somewhat surprised by the depth of the players’ respect for Unitas. They all revered him and seemed to have an almost occult belief in his ability to win. Lastly, I was shocked by owner Carroll Rosenbloom’s freedom to do as he pleased without repercussions. He was under investigation for gambling on football games, which was undeniably true, and he was even accused of betting against the Colts at least once, but he was never suspended or censured in any way by the league. Whenever he had a beef with anyone else in the league he always seemed to come out on top.
What’s your favourite anecdote from writing and researching the book?
I don’t know if it’s an anecdote, but going to see Earl Morrall was very memorable. Earl had been a great prospect, the number two pick in the draft, who never got a fair shake as a starter anywhere he played. He came to the Colts as an old man, and then when Unitas was injured in the preseason Earl led the team to the Super Bowl with a 13-1 record. When I went to his home in Florida he was a really sweet-natured guy who loved his wife. But he was also wrecked by his 20-some odd years in the league. He could barely walk and his memory was almost totally erased. Every time I asked him a question he would point to his temple and say, “My recall button don’t work too well.” It was a poignant example of how dangerous the game is.
Meeting these men and getting to hear their perspectives on history was a really privileged experience. Jimmy Orr was fun and interesting and extremely nice to me. Bill Curry, Johnny U’s center, was philosophical and described people and moments much like a very fine writer might. Curry’s line mate, Dan Sullivan, had the perspective of a wise man. He saw everything with a great deal of common sense, like a business leader or town father. Tom Matte was funny and highly candid. I was especially taken with Charley Winner. The old Colts assistant (and later Cardinals and Jets head coach), was a first-hand witness to the most historic events of the second half of the twentieth century. He was there the first moment that Unitas walked through the door and helped teach Johnny U how to read defenses. He was friends with George Halas. He coached Joe Namath.
Is there a football story that hasn’t been written, that you would like to read?
In any walk of life there are unlimited great stories that can and should be told. In fact, I think if professional football seems to suffer from anything it is a lack of really fine literature about it. NFL Films has them covered in that media, but where are the really great movies, novels, and non-fiction works? I hope that I have written one, Michael MacCambridge and John Eisenberg have written a few but so many great stories are still left to be told.
If you can create that sense of urgency with the reader to turn the page you are a good writer. It’s that simple.
The old Colts are really to be commended for making themselves available and talking forthrightly about their game, their teammates and opponents, and their times. Right now we are at a moment in history when football faces many existential threats. One way to preserve the legacy of the really brave men who performed at a very high level is to open up the game to good writers, make it easy and profitable for them to write about it, and let the writers frame the stories. Compelling and honest stories lend a genuine importance to the enterprise and create a lasting share of mind with the public at a time when kids have other distractions besides professional sports.
How do you define good writing?
To me, good writing is easy to define. It’s not about grammar, style, beauty, or characters, as important as all of those things are. It’s about whether or not the author can hypnotize the audience with his work. Good writing draws you in and makes you want to go from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from paragraph to paragraph, from page to page, and from chapter to chapter. If you can create that sense of urgency with the reader to simply turn the page you are a good writer. It’s that simple.
Do you have a writing hero or a mentor?
I went to school at Washington College on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the same place as the famous hard-boiled novelist, James M. Cain who wrote “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.” Cain’s very fine biographer, Roy Hoopes, worked at Washington College while I was there and mentored me and provided me with literary advice.
Years later I met the Holocaust novelist, Ellie Weisel, whom I greatly admired. I had one chance to ask Wiesel a question and it was this: “Mr. Weisel, was your spare prose style influenced by (the great existential writer) Camus.” He looked at me with his droopy-watery eyes and said: “Of course.” Later I read that Camus his work and style were influenced by James M. Cain. That was a kind of weird circle that these great men were a part of, and somehow I was in there, too. I, of course, am not a great writer, but when we read the great writers and engage in discussion about their work and practice the craft ourselves we somehow become attached to them.
Having literary heroes and mentors is essential for the continuation of great literature. The writers I particularly admire include everyone from Homer to Mark Twain to Red Smith. David Halberstam left a particularly strong impression on me, as did Gay Talese, Robert Penn Warren, Truman Capote and John Kennedy Toole. Bernard Malamud taught me the importance of tradition. Arthur Conan Doyle showed me that the story should never be sacrificed for deeper meaning. When I was younger I was not only introduced to the fine writing of Toni Morrison and Grace Paley, but I was introduced to the writers themselves and still admire their work. Robert Caro really resonates with me. My favorite football writers are Bill Gildea and Michael MacCambridge.
Even in my fifties I still have mentors. Michael Olesker, a Baltimore treasure, has been particularly kind to me and I love his writing. The same is true for John Eisenberg who has delighted me on the page and taught me in private.
Thinking of football books in general, what was the first one you remember reading?
“Paper Lion,” by George Plimpton.
What’s your favourite football book?
I really loved, “One More July: A Football Dialogue with Bill Curry,” by George Plimpton.
When it comes to football books, is there one you would consider an overlooked or forgotten gem?
I’m not sure how overlooked these books are but they deserve a mention: “America’s Game,” by Michael MacCambridge, “The Ten Gallon War,” by John Eisenberg, “The Colts’ Baltimore,” by Michael Olesker, and “When the Colts Belonged to Baltimore,” by Bill Gildea.
And thinking about books in general – what are the five books you’d want with you on a desert island (assume I’m throwing in Raft Building for Beginners.)
The Iliad of Homer
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
All The King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren
The Short Stories of Bernard Malamud, by Bernard Malamud
USA by John Dos Passos
You can buy Collision of Wills from Amazon US, Amazon UK, and all good bookshops. Follow Jack Gilden on Twitter or at his website.