collision of wills

Reviewed by by Bruce Pratt

28 january 2019       archive

Collision of Wills stands out among a group of excellent books on the history and rise of the NFL and the men and women who helped a marginal league evolve into the country's most successful sports machine. A fine companion piece to the Ron Borges and Upton Bell memoir, Present at the Creation, Jerry Izenberg's Rozelle, John Eisenberg's The League, Dick Crepeau's NFL Football, and Jesses Barrett's Pigskin Nation, to name a few, Gilden highlights and humanizes two giant NFL personalities, in the era when the game began to eclipse the previously more popular sports of boxing, horse racing, and baseball.

Thoroughly researched and honestly written, Gilden does an excellent job demystifying Unitas and Shula and placing them in their rightful positions in the NFL Pantheon by laying out the facts and allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions. This is not a finger-pointing or finger-wagging expose, but rather a nuanced examination of two complicated and, at times, enigmatic men enshrined in Canton. In this way the book functions like fine visual art—the more you contemplate it, the more you discover.

The latter is particularly true regarding Unitas. Like many football historians, Gilden makes a convincing case that Unitas sits atop the Mount Rushmore of NFL Quarterbacks. While conceding that today's QBs throw and complete more passes, connect for more touchdowns, and suffer fewer interceptions, he notes that, in the 1960's playing quarterback in the NFL was dangerous and difficult. It really was." This point is well documented not only for Unitas—who was the only fulltime QB on the Colt's roster in 1959 and played the entire season with broken vertebrae in his neck—but for all QB's in his era when they had fewer protections and greater responsibilities.

Unitas had long demonstrated that he was a brilliant signal caller. Here he ran afoul of Shula, who replaced back-to-back NFL Championship head coach Weeb Ewbank in 1963. Shula, Unitas's former teammate, who favored a run-centric offense with plays sent in from the sideline. Shula, who'd been a mediocre pro defensive back at best, was neither well regarded as a coach or a person by Unitas, who once said that were Shula on fire, he, "wouldn't piss on him to put it out." Unitas simply did not believe that Shula understood offense as well as he did, and resented Shula's tendency to scream and yell at players during practice. The two clashed often. (Of course, Shula is the only head coach to lead an NFL team to an undefeated season in the modern era.) However much they disliked the other, the Colts record during their mutual tenures is one of the most impressive runs in NFL history.

Shula, for his part, is kinder in his assessment of Unitas, though his remarks are tempered by both age and distance. Gilden was able to interview Shula, who rarely grants any journalist an audience. Though his memory was not as sharp as Gilden might have hoped, Shula was forthcoming about his relationship with Unitas—which he allowed was at best cool—but was far more complimentary of Unitas than he had been of Shula. However, many of those interviewed by Gilden felt that some of the tension between the coach and quarterback came from Shula's ego, complaining that when the Colts lost it was the player's fault but that credit for a win was always Shula's.

Much of what Gilden learned about Unitas's personal life came from interviews with former teammates, friends and his daughter. Many are unflattering. And though no one felt Unitas was not a great quarterback, these memories and recollections allow Gilden to present Unitas—philandering habits and all—with a cold, clear, eye. His concise but never lurid depiction of Unitas's "tomcatting," and the way it finally ended his marriage to wife Dorothy—as compelling a character as any in the book—is elegantly framed in the context of the times. Once portrayed as the ideal American couple, the end of their union was ugly. The five children were justified in feeling that they'd been abandoned and embarrassed, as Unitas ceased all contact with them. Dorothy is quoted as saying to her husband, a former Sports Father of the Year, "You are a hero to every child in this country, except your own."

Gilden's greatest contribution to the literature may well be the manner in which he fulfills the promise in the second part of the title with his examination of The Rise of the Modern NFL. The anecdotes and events in the book are contextualized within the immediate political and social climate—from the mid 1950s through the mid-1970's, from Eisenhower, through the upheavals of the Civil Rights movement, through the end of the Vietnam War. The list of interviewees is impressive and includes many former NFL players who played with Unitas and/or for Shula, journalists, team executives, spouses of players, and friends of both Unitas and Shula. Gilden weaves their comments and anecdotes into a seamless narrative. In these interviews, Gilden evinces the journalists' skill of putting people at ease, the historians' eye for detail, and an uncanny ability to get his sources to be fully forthcoming. The information he gleans in this manner is alone worth the price of the book.

Collision of Wills will satisfy the general sports reader as well as the football historian.

Collision of Wills, Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, And The Rise of The Modern NFL. By Jack Gilden. University of Nebraska Press 2018

Copyright © 2019 by Bruce Pratt

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