By Craig Pearson
TERRE HAUTE — The best part of visiting Rose-Hulman to watch the Indianapolis Colts prepare to defend their Super Bowl XLI championship is standing near the sidelines at practice to witness Peyton Manning deliver passes to the hands of Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne with impeccable precision.
One Terre Haute fan of the Colts understands that perhaps more than most. Nick Agresta Jr. became a Colts fan long before the team’s move to Indianapolis, when the late, great Johnny Unitas was delivering the same type of perfect passes.
Agresta Jr. recalls a television special in which cameras showed Unitas hitting his favorite target, Raymond Berry, with timing routes and he was sold for life on the man with “the Golden Arm.”
“Unitas, how he would throw to that spot … Berry would stop, turn around and the ball would be in his hands. That’s what drew me,” Agresta Jr. said.
The lifelong fan of the Colts is even more impressed with Manning’s ability, he said, because the defense’s have had time to plan for the more pass-heavy offenses.
“Manning is the quintessential master at [hitting receivers on timing routes],” Agresta Jr. said.
Manning has already broken numerous NFL passing records — and now that he has a Super Bowl ring — he’ll always be in the conversation as the best quarterback of all-time. But one Unitas record is as close to unbreakable as any in the NFL.
Unitas and his streak of 47 straight games with a touchdown pass is one of the premier accomplishments in sports. Brett Favre’s 36 straight is the closest anyone has come. While Manning has failed to reach paydirt in only 14 of his 144 career games played, the most consecutive games he reached the end zone was 28 — a mark that began in his rookie season.
“He’ll be the most prolific quarterback that ever was,” Agresta Jr. said. “He’ll set every record. He’ll be the standard for kids in high school. It’s been overstated that he’s a student of the game, I just think he’s got all the tools.”
Agresta Jr. didn’t find out until his father’s death in 1979 that Nick Agresta Sr. played on a semipro team called the Terre Haute Panthers around 1950, which was reported to have been a member of the Midwest Football League, sponsored by the Chicago Bears.
The elder Agresta, like most football fans in Indiana at the time, was a fan of George Halas’ Bears.
“My dad always instilled in me I should be a Bear fan,” Agresta Jr. said.
“He had this great affection for them. He used to watch them on TV on a little black and white. It was kind of a big kick for me and my buddies. When I saw the newspaper clip, it all came into perspective why he was such a diehard fan. It was only after he was gone that I could really appreciate that.”
Agresta Jr. wishes he could have heard stories about his dad’s time playing and coaching with the Panthers.
“I think that generation was a little more guarded, not as outgoing … didn’t talk too much about that kind of stuff,” Agresta Jr. said. “I want to think sometimes I’m pretty laid back, but if I’d have played for a Chicago Bears farm team, I’d have told everybody.”
While his father spoke little of his time with the Panthers, Agresta Jr. knows his father grew up in Steubenville, Ohio, which was 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, an area that has produced quarterbacks such as Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, Dan Marino, George Blanda and Marc Bulger.
Unitas was born in Pittsburgh and later drafted in the ninth round by the hometown Steelers after a less-than-stellar career at the University of Louisville.
One of four quarterbacks in camp in the summer of 1955, Unitas wasn’t given much of a shot to make the Steelers by coach Walter Kiesling.
Ted Marchibroda was the Steelers’ No. 1 choice in 1953. Marchibroda, who would later become head coach of the Baltimore Colts (1975-79) and Indianapolis Colts (1992-95), said Unitas’ presence at camp that year was hardly noticed, according to an excerpt from “Johnny U: The Life and Times of John Unitas.”
“Kiesling was an introverted guy,” Marchibroda said, “who had very little correspondence with the players. It seemed all head coaches in the pros were more distant then, but he was more distant than most. I’m not sure Keez even knew that John was there. But to be honest with you, [veteran Jim] Finks and I hardly noticed him either. Later when we had reason to think back, Jim and I talked about it. What had we missed? Neither one of us could remember a single thing John had done.”
Unitas didn’t take the cut well.
“I have to admit, I was really, really ugly with Kiesling,” he was quoted as saying. “I called him every name I could think of. I regretted it, too … ”
Unitas later came across two job openings and took both, according to “Johnny U.” He began work with a pile-driving crew and with the Rams of Bloomfield, an inner-city enclave on the east side of Pittsburgh.
Unitas’ description of the games was similar to those offered by men who played for the Terre Haute Panthers.
“Basically, it was like pickup games,” Unitas said. “You know, you practiced maybe once a week. Half the guys didn’t have full uniforms.”
Three years after being cut by the Steelers in 1958, Unitas led the Colts to the NFL championship in what is often referred to as “the greatest game ever played.” The Colts beat the Giants 23-17 in overtime and Unitas led the Colts to another title in 1959.
During the Colts’ recent run to the Super Bowl title, a sprinkling of No. 19 Unitas jerseys popped up among the No. 18 of Manning worn by thousands of Indianapolis fans.
And when the Colts played the Bears in this year’s Super Bowl, it was a dream come true for Agresta.
“It’s funny … I could have been a completely staunch Bears fan,” he said, recalling his dad’s aforementioned passion for the Chicago team that is shared by many current residents of Terre Haute. “I still love the fact they beat New England in 1985 [for the Bears’ last Super Bowl title].”
But there was no doubt who he was rooting for in the Super Bowl.
“I’m one of those guys that says you’ve got to be for the home team.”