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Yokitis recalls Unitas' greatness

| Sunday, Sept. 15, 2002

George Yokitis remembers the late, great Johnny Unitas. Back in the late 1960s, Yokitis was an outstanding quarterback at Blacklick Valley High School in Cambria County.

"When (Unitas) came to our high school to recruit me for his alma mater — the University of Louisville — the principal thought it was the biggest thing to hit the tiny town of Nanty Glo in a long time," Yokitis recalled. "He got on the loudspeaker throughout the school and said, 'George Yokitis, please report to the principal's office. Mr. Unitas is here to see you.'"

When Yokitis got to the office, Unitas greeted him by saying, "There are only two Lithuanian quarterbacks I know of — you and me. We have to stick together."

The deal was sealed. Yokitis headed off to Louisville and hoped to follow in Unitas' footsteps. Unfortunately, things did not work out with coach Lee Corso. Yokitis transferred to Indiana (Pa.), where he led the 1972 Indians to an 8-1 record that included a big 31-14 upset of Ron Jaworski and Youngstown State. Later, the New York Jets signed Yokitis as a free agent, and he made it to the final cut in training camp before heading to Temple Law School, where he graduated first in his class.

"I wish I had stayed in closer contact with Johnny," said a wistful Yokitis last week in the wake of Unitas' death. "He was a real blue-collar guy. Despite his fame, he never changed. My dad was a coal miner who made a living the hard way. Johnny had that same no-nonsense demeanor. I remember when I signed with the Jets, he called to congratulate me."

The thing that impressed Yokitis about Unitas was not so much his arm as his footwork.

"A lot of guys have big arms," Yokitis said. "But not everyone knows how to avoid the rush and throw with their feet and legs under them."

Yokitis, like Unitas, was not smooth when it came to scrambling.

"I never really liked to get hit," he said. "I would rather throw it away or run out of bounds. But I understood about sidestepping the rush in the pocket. That's the way Unitas did it. That's the way (Dan) Marino did it. Neither one was fast, but they sensed the rush. They knew how to avoid it to buy an extra second or so. They always had their legs under them. Rarely were they off balance, and that was key to their accuracy."

And then Yokitis paid Unitas his ultimate compliment: "We had two pictures on our living room wall in Nanty Glo: the Last Supper and Johnny Unitas. There were times when I was not sure which one had the higher status."

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