If you’re a Baltimore football fan, the new book “Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL” by local author Jack Gilden should move to the top of your reading list. Gilden, who released the book this month, will host and meet and greet and book signing on Saturday, October 27 from 1 to 4 p.m. at Barnes & Noble in White Marsh.
Former Baltimore Sun columnist, Michael Olesker, who wrote “The Colts’ Baltimore: A City and its Love Affair in the 1950s,” describes Gilden’s book as “a revealing look behind the scenes of one of the game’s most idolized players, and one of its most triumphant coaches—and how the two men won with remarkable consistency despite their sheer contempt for each other.”
Collision of Wills explores two NFL Legends, Johnny Unitas and Don Shula, and lays out their turbulent relationship along with the culture of the 1960s. No two NFL figures were more closely associated in the 1960s than Unitas, the premier quarterback in professional football, and his coach, Shula. But unknown to the press and fans, the two men had a difficult relationship that would last the rest of their lives.
“Shula and Unitas are American archetypes who played an outsized role in helping football leap frog baseball as America’s most important and followed sport,” said Gilden, who first thought of the idea for the book when he was a 15-year-old student attending a journalism conference at the former Colts training complex in Owings Mills.
Decades later, Gilden was still astounded by the fact that the greatest quarterback and the winningest coach in NFL history did not get along, so he set out to discover how two people who didn’t like one another could manage close careers so successfully.
In preparation for the book, Gilden, who lives in Rodgers Forge, interviewed Shula, Raymond Berry, Joe Namath, Jimmy Orr, Bobby Boyd, Sam Havrilack, Tom Matte, Gay Talese, Gary Collins, Frank Ryan, Bill Curry, Dan Sullivan, Charley Winner and Jan Unitas.
“If (Shula) was standing here right now, and he was on fire, I wouldn’t piss on him to put it out,” Gildan said Unitas told a mutual friend just a few years before he died in 2002. Unitas’ and Shula’s struggles echoed the troubled American times of that era, with a nation deeply divided by issues of race, war and gender.
Unitas and Shula began their rocky journey as Baltimore Colts teammates in the early 1950s, fighting for roster spots. When Shula was elevated to coach in 1963, the rivalry escalated while the team became extremely successful. In four of their seven seasons together, the Colts averaged only a little more than one loss per season. In fact, their Colts had a higher winning percentage than Vince Lombardi’s legendary Green Bay Packers.
Unitas won two Most Valuable Player awards under Shula. And Shula won three Coach of the Year awards. But according to Gilden, the discord between them may have led to two historic championship games losses to Jim Brown and the Cleveland Browns in 1964, and to Joe Namath and the New York Jets in Super Bowl III.
Gilden, who has won many journalism awards, including the Simon Rocower award, said that these stunning upsets are among the most heartbreaking losses any sports franchise ever suffered. Rarely had a team in any league performed so well, over such an extended period, only to come up empty.
John Eisenberg, former Baltimore Sun sports columnist and author of “The Streak: Lou Gehrig, Cal Ripken Jr., and Baseball’s Most Historic Record,” summed up the book when he wrote: “With passion for the subject, extensive reporting, and sharp analysis, Jack Gilden brings to life Johnny Unitas, Don Shula, their team, their era and their city. I thought I knew everything about Baltimore sports after covering them for more than three decades, but ‘Collision of Wills’ taught me a lot.”
In addition to his latest work, Gilden’s editorials, columns, and articles have appeared in Orioles Magazine, the Baltimore Sun, the Evening Sun, Chesapeake Life, Baltimore STYLE magazine and the Baltimore Jewish Times. He has written about the anti-Semitism of H.L. Mencken, the literary life of Bernard Malamud, the lost legend of “Swish” Nicholson, Joe Louis as civil rights hero, and the profane genius of Earl Weaver. He also wrote the Orioles 40th Anniversary Video, narrated by the legendary Jim McKay.
Jack Gilden: Meet the Author and Book Signing of “Collision of Wills: Johnny Unitas, Don Shula and the Rise of the Modern NFL”
Barnes & Noble at The Avenue at White Marsh
Saturday, October 27 from 1 to 4 p.m.
For more information, go to www.jackgilden.com.