Local Author Jack Gilden Plumbs the Depths of the Discord between Two Baltimore Football Heroes

In his new book, Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, and the Rise of the Modern NFL, Rodgers Forge resident Jack Gilden sheds new light on the complicated relationship between “American archetypes” Johnny Unitas and Don Shula. 

When did you conceive of the storyline for Collision of Wills?

When I was about 15. I attended a journalism conference for students hosted by the Baltimore Colts. One featured speaker was John Steadman, the legendary sports editor. He mentioned offhandedly that Johnny Unitas and Don Shula didn’t get along, and that it was a story that few knew.

As a longtime football fan, what was it like to interview greats like Joe Namath, Raymond Berry and Tom Matte?

Meeting these men who had taken on a kind of mythical quality, spending time with them, talking to them was like living a fantasy. The interesting part was stripping away the myth and understanding their more human qualities. We talked about their greatness, struggles, complaints, fights and failings. Interviewing them in my late 40s, I had the ability and perspective to understand that the hero’s life was a hard one with many regrets.

Were you surprised by the depth of acrimony you discovered between Unitas and Shula? 

I approached the story with the assumption of acrimony since that was what Steadman had told me all those years ago. I wasn’t surprised to find it. The evidence was everywhere. I spoke to teammates, family members, journalists, opposing players, etc., and just about everyone within the Colts family knew of this rift between Unitas and Shula. 

How did the discord between the two men contribute to the Colts’ two momentous losses during the 1960s (against the Browns in 1964 and the Jets in Super Bowl III)?

None of my interviewees was willing to say that Unitas and Shula’s problems contributed to the team’s agonizing championship losses. But other research revealed the anger and frustration that surfaced during these high-profile losses. After the ’64 championship loss to the Browns, Shula said something like, “We sure learned about their defense, didn’t we?” The New York Times flatly stated it was a shot aimed at Unitas. For Super Bowl III, Johnny U. made his case to start the game though he had been injured all year. After the game, he admitted to Steadman that he was furious at Shula for leaving him on the bench until almost the fourth quarter. Unitas thought Shula wanted to prove that the coach could win without him.

You’ve noted that Shula and Unitas are “American archetypes” who helped football leapfrog baseball as America’s most important sport. How?

At the beginning of the 1960s, baseball was the nation’s favorite sport. By the end of the decade, two football coaches—Vince Lombardi and Bear Bryant—were considered as candidates for either president or vice president by the two parties. Unitas and Shula were so good they lifted the intensity of the entire game. You could draw a direct line from Unitas and Shula to the merger with the AFL, to Monday Night Football, to expanded playoffs and other innovations that elevated the importance of the game and built the NFL colossus.

What’s should be our takeaway?

Collision of Wills is a book about how the mighty can fail. The underlying message is that when people cooperate there is nothing they can’t achieve. But when even great men work at cross purposes, they are ultimately doomed to failure.