Few athletes in any sport were as universally loved as the late Johnny Unitas. The celebrated quarterback enjoyed a long, storied career most notably with the then-Baltimore Colts, and he held virtually every major passing record at the time of his retirement. He was truly special on the field.
But it took some time for the “Johnny U” train to get rolling.
Believe it or not, his incredible career got off to a not-so-incredible start. Johnny U was drafted way back in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But, due to a wealth of options at the position and a perceived lack of football IQ on Unitas’s behalf, the team cut him shortly after.
The Colts took a chance on the young quarterback and gave him an opportunity to make the team as a backup. He stepped up and didn’t have to wait long for his first serious reps as an NFL starter during the 1956 season; his starting quarterback, George Shaw, suffered a broken leg and Unitas was thrust into the lead signal-calling role.
Though his first starting appearance was rather unspectacular – he threw a pick six on his first pass attempt and later botched a handoff that was recovered by his opponent, the Bears – Unitas went on to set the high mark in rookie completion percentage that year, with a 55.6-percent mark. He also threw the first touchdown in what would go on to be a record 47 consecutive games with a touchdown thrown, a mark that stood for 52 years until it was topped by Drew Brees.
The 1957 season started with a bang. Unitas got off to a blazing start and finished with top marks in passing yards with 2,550 and touchdowns with 24. “The Golden Arm” was coming to life.
By the time he called it a career, his numbers saw a significant drop in production, but his legend was firmly in place; three NFL Championships, 10 Pro Bowl selections and three MVPs will do that to your legacy. The Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn’t a question; it was a certainty.
Of course, cards of an athlete many consider among the greatest players of all time will be sought after by collectors all over the hobby. And, of course, many of his cards have retained, or increased, their trading card value.
We’ve spotlighted four valuable Johnny Unitas cards that comprise his Basic Set, starting with a card that needs no introduction.
Starting off with the Crown Jewel of Johnny Unitas cards, his 1957 Topps card is his only officially recognized rookie card and one of the keys to the set. It also happens to be one of the most recognizable football rookie cards in the hobby. If there was a Mount Rushmore of Football Cards, this behemoth would fit right in. The colorful set features juxtaposing profile and action shots of the quarterback. As the key card to own of such a celebrated athlete, within such an iconic set, examples up and down the grading scale will cost you. PSA 9 examples have fetched as much as $144k at auction. Adding to the card’s lore is that it’s notoriously tough to find in high grade. No examples have been graded PSA 10.
PSA Good 2: $250
PSA Excellent 5: $400
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $6,500
After Unitas captured his first championship the year prior, Topps awarded the young quarterback in a big way: the company made him the #1 card in the set for the next five years. Since then, no athlete has been given such an honor, in any sport – ever. But, its #1 position comes with condition obstacles, namely wear from the rubber bands that customarily bound the cards together from collectors who weren’t overly concerned about card condition. Perhaps this is the reason no example has been graded PSA 10, just like the case with his rookie issue.
PSA Good 2: $15
PSA Excellent 5: $65
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $1,400
With its minimalist design and an uncharacteristically frowning Unitas, 1960 Topps stands out among early issues of the legendary quarterback. Unitas had nothing to frown about, however; he went on to set career highs in passing yards and yards per game. The typical condition issues associated with the #1 card, along with centering and corner wear, tend to afflict this card.
PSA Good 2: N/A
PSA Excellent 5: $40
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $1,100
Topps went back to the drawing board with its 1962 design, opting to again implement the horizontal layout but this time with added visual flair. Thick black borders frame a black-and-white image of Unitas in mid-throw, while a colored, posed image of the quarterback stands prominently alongside. Though aesthetically pleasing, the added black borders are, of course, apt to incur chips and show wear. This makes the card a very tough grade. No examples have exceeded PSA 8.5.
PSA Good 2: N/A
PSA Excellent 5: $85
PSA Near Mint-Mint 8: $4,000
Johnny Unitas Cards Required to Complete the Set
- 1957 Topps #138 Johnny Unitas
- 1958 Topps #22 Johnny Unitas
- 1959 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
- 1960 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
- 1961 Fleer #30 Johnny Unitas
- 1961 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
- 1962 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
- 1963 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
- 1964 Philadelphia #12 Johnny Unitas
- 1965 Philadelphia #12 Johnny Unitas
- 1966 Philadelphia #24 Johnny Unitas
- 1967 Philadelphia #23 Johnny Unitas
- 1968 Topps #100 Johnny Unitas
- 1969 Topps #25 Johnny Unitas
- 1970 Topps #180 Johnny Unitas
- 1971 Topps #1 Johnny Unitas
- 1972 Topps #165 Johnny Unitas
- 1973 Topps #455 Johnny Unitas
- 1974 Topps #150 Johnny Unitas
Browse through images of each card in the set within the image gallery section of the Set Registry.
Before modern icons like Tom Brady or Drew Brees were even born, Unitas was redefining what it meant to be an NFL quarterback. The Golden Arm set the gold standard at the position. And to endear him more with fans and collectors alike, he had to earn his chance to play after being drafted late, cut and given one more chance to play.
Though Unitas ended his career the way he started it – rather unremarkably – the strong-armed quarterback carved out some truly legendary marks and set records that stood for years. Athletes of his caliber only come around a few times in a generation. Head over to the PSA Set Registry and see what football rookie cards of a generational talent look like. Check out the Johnny Unitas Basic Set.Start Your Set Today