John Unitas was cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers and his stooped shoulders made him look like anything but an NFL quarterback.
But Unitas had more courage and composure than just about any quarterback in league history. He died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 69.
"I've always said the purest definition of leadership was watching Johnny Unitas get off the team bus," said Ernie Accorsi, general manager of the New York Giants, an executive with the Baltimore Colts in Unitas' final years there and a close friend.
It was probably most evident in what is usually considered the greatest football game ever - the Colts' 23-17 overtime victory over the Giants in 1958 title game.
Unitas led the Colts on a late drive to tie the game, then on another to win. It wasn't just the pinpoint passing to Raymond Berry and Jim Mutscheller, but the poise with which he did it - never panicking as the clock ticked down and he maneuvered his team into position for the tying field goal.
Yet with the heroism went humility.
Al Davis was an assistant coach in college when he met Unitas.
"He was tough and shy at the same time," the Oakland Raiders' owner said Wednesday. "He came up and introduced himself to me -he was almost diffident. But he was a truly great player.
"It was a shock," Davis added. "So many of my people have died recently. I'm running out of tears."
Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw, who played against Unitas when the former Baltimore great was in San Diego, said he measured a quarterback's ability by his composure and game management.
"He didn't panic, or if he did, nobody knew it," Bradshaw said. "He just managed the game and was a clutch player. ... He was smart, his poise was incredible and that's what you've got to have. He was a fierce leader."
Unitas' relationship with the Colts ended when Robert Irsay moved the team to Indianapolis after the 1983 season.
But Irsay's son, Jim, now the team's owner, remembered Unitas fondly. He met him when he was 13, the year his father bought the team
"He was a hero to so many people, including me. Over time, he became larger than life," Irsay said. "Without question, Johnny was the reason football catapulted to the top of the professional sports world."
"He was a leader in so many ways, a man of indescribable talent and extraordinary character. Johnny leaves us with many great memories from professional football, and we are all grateful for what he gave us in his lifetime."
Atlanta coach Dan Reeves was a quarterback in high school and college who was converted to a running back for the Dallas Cowboys. He grew up idolizing Unitas and ended up playing against him.
"People talk about athletes being role models all of the time," Reeves said. "Johnny was as great a person as you can be. I knew everything about him growing up. He played the same position as me, and I always wanted to be just like him. He was my hero.
"When I finally had a chance to meet him it was amazing how down to earth he was."
For the NFL, it was a loss of a player who was on the 50th and 75th NFL anniversary teams and one who continued to be a presence at league functions long after he retired.
"Johnny Unitas will always be a legendary name in NFL history," commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. "One of the greatest quarterbacks to ever play the game, he epitomized the position with his leadership skills and his ability to perform under pressure.
"At a time when national television was beginning to focus on the NFL, 'Johnny U' captured the public's imagination and helped drive the growing popularity of professional football."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times