“It was hard. It took me years,” said author Jack Gilden, about his new book “Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL.”
Due out in hardback on Oct. 1 from University of Nebraska Press, the book invites the reader to take an epic journey with Gilden as he traces the rise of the championship Baltimore Colts, dissects the Johnny Unitas-Don Shula rivalry and illuminates the growth of the nascent National Football League — all against the backdrop of a country and a people in turmoil.
In fact, it took Gilden six years, close to three-dozen interviews, reams of research and more than a thousand miles of travel from Massachusetts to the tip of Florida to pull the wide-ranging story together, which contrasts the microcosm of player and coach portraits against the wider context of 1950s and ’60s-era political turmoil, the Vietnam War, racism, anti-Semitism, assassinations and even the sexual revolution.
“I never saw myself as writing a sports book. I saw myself as writing a book about America in the ’60s and it was through the lens of these two brilliant men who did not like each other,” Gilden said. “To me they represented the turmoil in society and also the path to the road that eventually led us to where we are right now. I was trying to create an extraordinary book.”
And by many accounts, he did, according to some pre-release reviews.
“With passion for the subject, extensive reporting, and sharp analysis, Jack Gilden brings to life Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, their team, their era and their city,” wrote John Eisenberg, author and former Baltimore Sun sports columnist. “I thought I knew everything about Baltimore sports after covering them for more than three decades, but ‘Collision of Wills’ taught me a lot.”
The focus of the book is that collision of two very talented and powerful men: Johnny Unitas, the Colts legendary and still-beloved quarterback from 1956-1972, and Don Shula, the Colts legendary but often- reviled (by many Baltimoreans) head coach from 1963-1969. Both are Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees; Unitas in 1979 and Shula in 1997. Both are still considered the best in the sport and Gilden treats them equally and fairly.
Peppered throughout the book are allusions to Jews and Judaism (not surprising, since Gilden is Jewish), including comparing the early Colts to the “Israelites fated to wander the desert until the slave generations had passed,” and seeing David in Unitas, “improbably defending his Jerusalem against hordes of the others.” His right arm, a sling.
But what drove Gilden to write such a sprawling account? An admitted Colts fan and high school varsity football player, Gilden followed in the footsteps of his father and majored in humanities at Washington College. His father owned a Pikesville art gallery and his mother was an artist. He grew up in Pikesville and Owings Mills and had an early interest in journalism.
“I just fell in love with the game of football at a very young age and when I went to high school to play, I wanted to be quarterback and I started studying Johnny Unitas,” Gilden said. “I read everything I could about him and his story resonated with me as somebody who was rejected over and over and over again. And then when he finally got a real opportunity, he became the very greatest player in the history of the game. I really responded to that story, because I thought well, maybe it would be possible for me too. And he has been my favorite athlete ever since.”
I never saw myself as writing a sports book. I saw myself as writing a book about America in the ’60s and it was through the lens of these two brilliant men who did not like each other. — Jack Gilden
Gilden said the book has been in his head since he attended a journalism conference that the Colts organization hosted for high schoolers interested in the craft. He was 15.
“Sportswriter John Steadman was there and he talked about the dislike between the two men,” Gilden remembered “And I thought, ‘Wow, that’s really interesting.’ I started to wonder, how does a team go from being so good, like they were in the late ’50s, to losing it. Then how do you put together the best player that ever played the game and a man who is one of the three best coaches who ever coached in the game? Yet they couldn’t win the championship together, and they disliked each other.
“They took the game to incredibly high heights, but they couldn’t win the big one,” he added. “And was that just a coincidence, or did it have something to do with their inability to get along?”
Unitas’ legend was sealed with what is now called “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 (pre-Super Bowl history) championship between the Colts and the New York Giants. Unitas, a brilliant play-caller, was coached then by Weeb Ewbank who let his star QB call the shots.
The game, a muddy, bloody battle in the snow a few days after Christmas, offered fans the first championship game to go into sudden-death overtime. The Colts emerged victorious 23-17.
Five years later, Shula, a young former Colt defensive back, replaced Unitas’ father- figure coach Ewbank and proved to be a hard-edged taskmaster, who sent in plays from the sidelines, often infuriating the independent and strong-willed Unitas. Thus the rivalry began.
And it is that battle of personalities that anchors the book, while weaving in profiles of Colt players from stalwarts Gino Marchetti and Alan Ameche to hothead Joe Don Looney and the incomparable Lenny Moore. One anecdote about Looney echoes the violence of the times, while Moore’s story reflects how far behind society lagged for black players as they made history on the gridiron.
Meanwhile, alongside the societal turmoil, the NFL was evolving with the advent of televised games and quarterbacks like Unitas who became as famous as film stars. Then came the steady tread of modifications to the game, including protections for the QB and receivers, that Gilden said changed the game forever.
“The new rules also afforded the next generation of quarterbacks another extravagant advantage: their receivers were allowed to run the field, unmolested, after the first 5 yards from scrimmage,” writes Gilden. “Previously, linebackers could harass receivers all the way down the field. By the mid-1970s the quarterback no longer enjoyed the status of bravest man on the turf.”
Gilden’s book offers a detailed look at the Colts and the relationship between Unitas and Shula for hometown fans of the sport, but for anyone interested in a compelling, comprehensive and poetic take on the tumultuous 1950s and ‘60s through a pro-football prism, Gilden’s book kicks it through the goalposts. JT
Jack Gilden has various upcoming area speaking engagements, including at the Baltimore Book Festival on Sept. 29. For more information, visit jackgilden.com.