5 Things You Didn't Know About Johnny Unitas

David Leeds, Getty Images
David Leeds, Getty Images

The NFL preseason's in full swing, but instead of handicapping battles for backup QB jobs, let's take a look at five things you might not know about one of the greatest signal callers of all time: Johnny Unitas.

1. He Could Go Both Ways

When Unitas was a high school senior from Pittsburgh, nobody could really see that the halfback/quarterback combo would one day become an NFL legend. Notre Dame took one look at his six-foot, 138-pound build and decided against giving him a scholarship, so the son of Lithuanian immigrants ended up at the University of Louisville.

Unitas' collegiate career at Louisville, which wasn't even part of the NCAA at the time, largely consisted of him playing very well on mediocre-to-bad teams. During the 1952 season, however, the sophomore was all over the field. The team decided that its players would play both defense and offense, so in addition to playing QB, Unitas also served as a linebacker, safety, and return man. By all accounts the nimble Unitas was pretty tough as a safety, but his team slumped to a 3-5 record, including a humiliating 59-6 blowout at Tennessee.

2. He Could Have Been a Steeler

Although Unitas enjoyed a solid college career, injuries nagged him his senior year and hurt his pro prospects. When the 1955 NFL Draft rolled around, the Pittsburgh Steelers eventually took Unitas with the 102nd pick, all the way down in the ninth round.

The Steelers already had three quarterbacks on the roster, though, and the team really only planned to carry three QBs throughout the season. The Steelers' coaching staff didn't give Unitas much of a chance to show his stuff, either. Art Rooney, Jr., part of the legendary family of Steelers owners, later said, "The coaches would run the quarterbacks through drills, and sometimes the whistle would blow before John even got a turn."

The Steelers ended up cutting Unitas after the last game of the 1955 preseason. The man they felt was a better fit for the third QB job, Ted Marchibroda, only started 11 games his entire NFL career, all of them in the Steelers' dismal 4-7 1956 season.

3. He Didn't Give Up, Though

After the Steelers cut Unitas, things must have looked pretty grim for him. He had a wife and children, and he needed to make some cash to support them. Unitas took construction and steel work jobs around Pittsburgh to make ends meet while also playing QB for a local semipro team, the Bloomfield Rams. The Rams were quite literally a sandlot team; they had to sprinkle oil or water on the field to keep it from getting too dusty since there was no grass. For the whopping paycheck of $3 per game, Unitas also played safety and handled the team's punting duties while wearing a decidedly un-QB-like number 45 jersey.

Unitas was right to hang with it in the sticks for a season, though. In February of 1956, the Baltimore Colts asked Unitas and his Bloomfield teammate Jim Deglau, a lineman, to come to Baltimore for a workout. Although Unitas was cash-strapped and worried that a failed audition in Baltimore would effectively end his football career, he and Deglau borrowed gas money and hit the road.

Unitas, of course, played like Johnny Unitas in his audition. The Colts shelled out a whopping $7,000 to sign Unitas as their backup QB for the 1956 season.

4. He Wasn't Quite a Natural, Though

Unitas began the 1956 season on the bench behind starter George Shaw, but that arrangement didn't last long. Shaw broke his leg during the Colts' fourth game, and Unitas found himself thrust into the spotlight against a very good Bears team.

Baltimore fans couldn't have liked what they saw in the early going. Unitas' first pass found its way into the hands of the Bears' J.C. Caroline, who ran the pick back for a touchdown. The jitters didn't calm down after this first play, either. On the next play from scrimmage Unitas ran into running back Alan Ameche during a bungled handoff and fumbled the ball back to the Bears. The Bears marched down the field for a score, just as they did when Unitas botched and fumbled a second handoff later in the game.

When the smoke cleared, Unitas' NFL debut ended in a 57-28 rout. It wasn't a total catastrophe, though; Unitas got his first NFL TD pass with a 36-yard strike to frequent target Jim Mutscheller.

5. He Didn't Lack Confidence

Unitas' first major triumph was leading the Colts to victory in the 1958 NFL Championship Game, which would later become known as "The Greatest Game Ever Played" and is sometimes credited for propelling the NFL to greater national popularity. The score was tied at 17 at the end of regulation, which led to a sudden death OT.

Although Baltimore didn't start with the ball in OT, the Colts' defense forced a punt to put the ball in Unitas' hands. Unitas marched 80 yards down the field while calling all of his own plays, and Ameche punched the ball into the end zone with a one-yard run to win the championship.

The signature play of the drive was a long pass down the sideline from Unitas to his main receiving weapon, Hall of Famer Raymond Berry. After the game, reporters asked Unitas if making that kind of throw in a sudden death game was sort of dangerous. After giving it some thought, Unitas responded, "Nothing's dangerous if you know what you're doing."

10 Rad Gifts for Hikers

Greg Rosenke/Unsplash
Greg Rosenke/Unsplash

The popularity of bird-watching, camping, and hiking has skyrocketed this year. Whether your gift recipients are weekend warriors or seasoned dirtbags, they'll appreciate these tools and gear for getting most out of their hiking experience.

1. Stanley Nesting Two-Cup Cookset; $14

Amazon

Stanley’s compact and lightweight cookset includes a 20-ounce stainless steel pot with a locking handle, a vented lid, and two insulated 10-ounce tumblers. It’s the perfect size for brewing hot coffee, rehydrating soup, or boiling water while out on the trail with a buddy. And as some hardcore backpackers note in their Amazon reviews, your favorite hiker can take the tumblers out and stuff the pot with a camp stove, matches, and other necessities to make good use of space in their pack.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Osprey Sirrus and Stratos 24-Liter Hiking Packs; $140

Amazon

Osprey’s packs are designed with trail-tested details to maximize comfort and ease of use. The Sirrus pack (pictured) is sized for women, while the Stratos fits men’s proportions. Both include an internal sleeve for a hydration reservoir, exterior mesh and hipbelt pockets, an attachment for carrying trekking poles, and a built-in rain cover.

Buy them: Amazon, Amazon

3. Yeti Rambler 18-Ounce Bottle; $48

Amazon

Nothing beats ice-cold water after a summer hike or a sip of hot tea during a winter walk. The Yeti Rambler can serve up both: Beverages can stay hot or cold for hours thanks to its insulated construction, and its steel body (in a variety of colors) is basically indestructible. It will add weight to your hiker's pack, though—for a lighter-weight, non-insulated option, the tried-and-true Camelbak Chute water bottle is incredibly sturdy and leakproof.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Mappinners Greatest 100 Hikes of the National Parks Scratch-Off Poster; $30

Amazon

The perfect gift for park baggers in your life (or yourself), this 16-inch-by-20-inch poster features epic hikes like Angel’s Landing in Zion National Park and Half Dome in Yosemite National Park. Once the hike is complete, you can scratch off the gold foil to reveal an illustration of the park.

Buy it: Amazon

5. National Geographic Adventure Edition Road Atlas; $19

Amazon

Hikers can use this brand-new, updated road atlas to plan their next adventure. In addition to comprehensive maps of all 50 states, Puerto Rico, Canada, and Mexico, they'll get National Geographic’s top 100 outdoor destinations, useful details about the most popular national parks, and points on the maps noting off-the-beaten-path places to explore.  

Buy it: Amazon

6. Adventure Medical Kits Hiker First-Aid Kit; $25

Amazon

This handy 67-piece kit is stuffed with all the things you hope your hiker will never need in the wilderness. Not only does it contain supplies for pain, cuts and scrapes, burns, and blisters (every hiker’s nemesis!), the items are organized clearly in the bag to make it easy to find tweezers or an alcohol wipe in an emergency.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Hiker Hunger Ultralight Trekking Poles; $70

Amazon

Trekking poles will help increase your hiker's balance and stability and reduce strain on their lower body by distributing it to their arms and shoulders. This pair is made of carbon fiber, a super-strong and lightweight material. From the sweat-absorbing cork handles to the selection of pole tips for different terrain, these poles answer every need on the trail. 

Buy it: Amazon

8. Leatherman Signal Camping Multitool; $120

Amazon

What can’t this multitool do? This gadget contains 19 hiking-friendly tools in a 4.5-inch package, including pliers, screwdrivers, bottle opener, saw, knife, hammer, wire cutter, and even an emergency whistle.

Buy it: Amazon

9. RAVPower Power Bank; $24

Amazon

Don’t let your hiker get caught off the grid with a dead phone. They can charge RAVPower’s compact power bank before they head out on the trail, and then use it to quickly juice up a phone or tablet when the batteries get low. Its 3-inch-by-5-inch profile won’t take up much room in a pack or purse.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Pack of Four Indestructible Field Books; $14

Amazon

Neither rain, nor snow, nor hail will be a match for these waterproof, tearproof 3.5-inch-by-5.5-inch notebooks. Your hiker can stick one in their pocket along with a regular pen or pencil to record details of their hike or brainstorm their next viral Tweet.

Buy it: Amazon

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12 Oversized Facts About JNCO Jeans

In 1998, Fortune magazine declared, "If you can't pronounce 'JNCO,' you're hopelessly out of touch." JNCOs—which at one point stood for "Judge None, Choose One," "Journey of the Chosen Ones," or maybe even the slightly less rebellious “Jeans Co.”—were quintessentially '90s jeans, worn largely (at least at first) by skaters and nonconformists and known for mega-wide leg openings. Though the clothing line enjoyed only fleeting relevance, the clownish silhouettes have been immortalized through regular nostalgia-fueled posts and Onion punchlines. Here are a few things you might not have known about JNCOs.

1. JNCO was an American-inspired brand founded by two French men.

JNCO was founded in 1985 by Haim and Yaakov Revah, two media-shy brothers from France who go by "Milo" and "Jacques," respectively. Together, the two operated Revatex, the Los Angeles parent company which began producing mostly private-label apparel for retail chains before eventually introducing JNCOs to the public in 1993. Los Angeles served as an appropriate location for its launch: According to The Los Angeles Times, JNCO was born out of Milo's love for the city's culture—particularly, that of its wide-pant-wearing Latino population he encountered in east Los Angeles neighborhoods. Though the Revahs were born in Morocco and raised in France, they always expressed an interest in American culture. Milo told The Times that among his favorite pastimes was watching reruns of Starsky and Hutch and Charlie's Angels.

2. JNCO actively rejected “conventionalism” throughout the ‘90s.

From the start, JNCO's mission, according to its website, was to “Challenge conventionalism. Explore the unfamiliar. Honor individuality.” One could argue that JNCO was unwavering on the first part of its mission throughout the '90s, defining itself in opposition to mainstream brands like Levi's. JNCO's target demographic was made abundantly clear through its sponsorships of extreme-sports events, aiming for surfers and skateboarders between 12 and 20 years old. In a 1998 Fortune article, writer Nina Munk speculated that ads taken out in magazines like Electric Ink and Thrasher were there to bait "cool young (mainly white) men." The article also mentioned that Revatex would often hand out free clothes to '90s tastemakers, including extreme athletes Todd "Wild Man" Lyons and Sean Mallard, as well as members of Limp Bizkit and prominent DJs in the rave scene.

3. JNCO embraced a “suburban” brand following the bankruptcy of its main retailer.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In 1994, JNCO's main retailer, the Joppa, Maryland-based jeans chain Merry-Go-Round, filed for bankruptcy; two years later, it liquidated all of its stores. The Revahs withdrew all JNCOs merchandise from Merry-Go-Round before the stores liquidated and recruited Steven Sternberg to help rebrand the jeans.

Sternberg, a New York retail guru who had made waves working with B.U.M. Equipment—another Los Angeles-based clothing line popular among mall dwellers—told them that "this is not an urban line." He suggested the company should, instead, align itself with surf and skate brands like Billabong and Quiksilver. "We would not sell to stores that carried FUBU or Cross Colours," Sternberg told Racked. "We retooled JNCO from being an urban line to being strictly a suburban line."

4. JNCO Jeans accounted for 10 percent of PacSun’s business in 1997.

Thomas Hawk, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Its suburban branding in place, JNCO found a fruitful partner in Anaheim's on-the-rise retailer Pacific Sunwear (PacSun). "This [PacSun] management team has great ability to anticipate what's hot," a Baltimore stock analyst told The Wall Street Journal in 1996. The analyst was, of course, speaking of the retailer's recent partnership with JNCO jeans—a move which a later financial report would show was just as lucrative for JNCO as it was for the Anaheim retailer. ''People can go anywhere to buy Levi's,'' Carl Womack, Pacific Sunwear's chief financial officer, told The New York Times in 1997. ''Fashion-oriented kids don't come to us for that. The only way we can distinguish ourselves is with smaller brands. JNCO has gone from almost none of our business to about 10 percent over a period of a year.''

5. The secret to JNCO’s (short-lived) success was its hands-on promotion.

Asked what the secret to their success was in 1997, Tam Miller, vice president of sales and marketing, told The New York Times that it was all about close contact with the customer base. "We pay very close attention to everything they say. In my neighborhood, there is a skating ramp and I go there and bring samples all the time. When I go home, all the kids run around and ask, 'What's new?'" Other accounts confirm this statement to be true: 30-year-old Joseph Janus, who had joined JNCO as director of advertising and marketing, was spotted at a New York rock club, evangelizing to teens with his seemingly relatable jeans and baseball cap. He'd even asked kids to take off their pants and trade them in for JNCOs, according to Ad Age.

6. There was a time when JNCO’s future looked far brighter than Levi’s.

In a 1997 New York Times article, 18-year-old college student Sam Norris named Guess, Tommy Hilfiger, and JNCOs as his favorite jeans—and declared Levi's officially uncool. "Levi's are sort of, I don't know, outdated or something," he told the paper. Levi Strauss had announced mass layoffs (around 1000 employees, in the Times' estimation) due to slowly growing sales and rising costs. All the while, JNCO's sales were at an all-time high: In 1997, the privately held company's sales were estimated by Ad Age to be between $40 million and $100 million; by 1998—at its peak—JNCO recorded sales of $186.9 million.

7. JNCOs were banned from California’s Orange County schools.

The Los Angeles Times reported in 1998 that Orange County schools were banning wide-leg jeans, putting JNCO and Kikwear on the list of verboten legwear. Administrators told the newspaper that they were fearful of students tripping over the baggy pants, as well as using the extra "yardage" to hide weapons. Some students at the time of the article being published believed the administrative move had subtext—that the pants signified gang affiliation. "They think it's gangster," one student said. "It doesn't matter what you wear. If you look at someone wrong or they don't like you, they're still going to go after you."

8. Counterfeit JNCO jeans were a huge problem in Chicago.

Revatex and PacSun weren't the only ones profiting off of the rise of wide-legged jeans in the '90s. By the mid-'90s, Chicago counterfeiters were taking advantage of the fad, according to The Chicago Tribune. Revatex executives who had flown to Chicago to expand their JNCO market discovered that many stores were already selling pants claiming to be JNCOs. The company was left with no choice but to hire a private-investigation firm to help them take the fakes off the market. "There are literally times when you can't market your products in some cities because counterfeiters have already marketed it," Karl Manders, a chief executive officer who worked with Revatex in their counterfeit battle, told The Tribune.

9. The sales of JNCO jeans “sagged badly” in 1999.

While JNCO had earned its denim crown from 1995 and 1998—with sales climbing from $36 million to $186.9 million—its numbers suffered in the following year. Racked reports that in 1999, sales dipped to $100 million. Consequently, parent company Revatex shut down its Los Angeles facility, leaving 250 workers jobless.

That same year, The New York Times published the deep-dive "Levi's Blues," an investigation into the many lives of the classic denim company. It featured a 16-year-old from Las Vegas, New Mexico who explained that "JNCO [was] more last year": "Now it's more Polo and Tommy Hilfiger and Boss," he said. The writer Hal Espen went on to note that the sales of JNCO jeans had been "sagging badly":

"As my informants at Villa Linda Mall [in Santa Fe, New Mexico] told me, really baggy, the thuggish thing, is fading out, and boys and girls are embracing more of a preppy look. 'Not really a slim, tapered leg,' one boy told me, 'but not going for humongous, either.' Perhaps it's another paradigm shift. That would be cool, wouldn't it?"

10. JNCOs were deemed “uncool” by Hot Topic.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Cindy Levitt, merchandise manager for Hot Topic, told The Los Angeles Times in 2000 that JNCOs were a little too mainstream for her store's clientele. "You still see JNCO at raves," she said. "But it's a little uncool for our customer. It's at too many doors in the mall." Levitt was speaking to JNCOs growing presence among "pedestrian" shops like J.C. Penney—where, in 1998, JNCO was the top-selling brand among young men—as well as PacSun, Ron Jon Surf Shop and The Buckle.

11. JNCOs made a comeback in 2015—although they weren't how most remembered them.

Thanks to the Chinese trading company Guotai Litian—which bought JNCO for seven figures—as well as the cyclical nature of fashion, JNCOs relaunched as an all-purpose denim company in 2015, with a line that looked a little less unconventional. While signature wide-legged jeans were still available through the "Heritage collection" in 20 to 23 inches, the company cashed in on athleisure. And as Joseph Cohen, director of strategic planning at Guotai USA told TODAY, the new line has a different target demographic in mind: “between 20 and 40 years old."

12. JNCOs relaunched under new ownership in 2019.

In 2018, Milo Rivah bought back the JNCO license and reimagined the jeans (which had apparently suffered from quality issues in recent years) with his daughter, Camilla. In June 2019, they relaunched the brand with a return to its wide-legged form: There were eight styles—including a 50-inch-wide pair reminiscent of the popular "Crime Scenes" jean—with price tags ranging from $130 to $250. If you'd like to relive your '90s glory days, you can buy a pair of jeans on JNCO's website.