Ron Laneve kind of smiled the whole time he spoke as he kind of sat on the edge of his chair in the living room of his Woodsboro farmhouse, which was originally built a few hundred years ago.
He’d invited me there to discuss a time not quite so distant, but certainly far enough in the past that one could rightfully question the recall of this 83-year-old former football player who liked to tag his tales with the line “and that’s a true story” — as if someone might indeed contest the veracity of a senior citizen who is still so strapping.
Laneve has been strapping forever. He said he was 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds as a ninth-grader. That size, at that age, helped him garner offers to play prep football in south Pittsburgh. He chose the school where his older brother Robert had played, a tiny Catholic institution called St. Justin’s High.
St. Justin’s was, perhaps technically, in America’s Quarterback Cradle — the region of Pennsylvania that’s famous for producing several legendary signal-callers. I say “perhaps technically” because, in 1950, when Laneve matriculated at St. Justin’s and joined the football team as its lone freshman, that label hadn’t yet been affixed.
But the QB who started the embroidery was on the field when Laneve arrived as a fledgling end. And that QB was why I was there in Laneve’s ancient house, on the receiving end of his storytelling as he mused about the slight senior quarterback who threw him passes with a distinctly over-the-top motion while wearing black high tops.
It seemed like Laneve had been waiting forever to go on the record with someone like me about his relationship with the man who came to define the most important position in sports with the Baltimore Colts. But, truth is, he’s spent much of his life mentioning, to anyone who will listen, their connection.
“Every time I could,” nodded the retired high school principal.
Laneve chose me as his latest sounding board in May, after I’d written a column about my brush with Unitas at an early 1990s autograph signing. I was more than happy to oblige the gentlemanly Laneve — particularly since now is the perfect time for a fun story about prep football in an increasingly imperfect time when none is currently being played here.
Take it away, Ron.
“I’ll never forget one day I was in the huddle, this is in high school now,” Laneve started. “Johnny threw a pass. [The receiver] dropped it. ... He came back, got in the huddle. Johnny said [to the receiver], ‘Tom, get out of here! Go tell the coach to send me somebody who can catch the damn football.’
“And that’s a true story.”
‘One more time’
The fact Unitas even became a quarterback — not just of note, but at all — was initially a matter of circumstance: He only got the job because the St. Justin’s starter broke his ankle. And the fact Unitas didn’t destroy his chances at remaining a quarterback was a matter of great fortune: Because as a St. Justin’s junior, he nearly shot off the middle finger of his throwing hand while cleaning what happened to be a loaded pistol.
But once he took over at the position, nothing would be capable of detouring his route to greatness.
Laneve knew it almost immediately upon coming into contact with a teenage Unitas. Laneve wasn’t a starter, “But I got to play, and Johnny and I had a good relationship,” he said.
As Laneve tells it, the still-developing quarterback — whom coach Max Carey trusted to call his own plays out of their wing-T even at that tender stage — couldn’t do much to lift St. Justin’s to victory in the 1950 season. It was a small team (Laneve said they had the minimum 33 players) that squared off against bigger programs in their Catholic league.
And, he said, they couldn’t protect Unitas worth a darn.
“Johnny had to run for his life almost all the time,” Laneve said.
Maybe they won three games. Maybe that was the year Unitas learned how to take such punishing hits and keep getting up. But, definitely, an imprint had been made. And it was made largely through another trait Laneve immediately mentioned when asked just what it was about Unitas.
Laneve said Unitas was constantly challenging his teammates, pushing them to do another rep, “One more time. One more time.’” On the field with Johnny U, “there was no messing around.”
After Laneve’s lone year with Unitas, the quarterback went off to the University of Louisville, which offered him a scholarship having never even seen him take a snap. He became the Cardinals’ starter by the fifth game of his freshman year in 1951, a job he held for three more after that.
In the summertime, Unitas would return to Pittsburgh. And he’d inevitably find his way to Laneve’s house in Brookline, where they’d work out in a garage gym converted from a coal cellar.
By then, Laneve had transferred to South Hills High School, where he continued his own journey to college football. As a senior, he got invited to an all-star game and played what he called the best game of his life.
“I can still remember the PA system: ‘Tackle made by Ron Laneve,’” he said.
The performance turned the head of University of Maryland assistant coach Bob Ward. In the locker room, Laneve said Ward handed him a plane ticket to Washington D.C.
He’s been a Marylander ever since.
Rise to greatness
Of course, during college breaks, Laneve would also return home. And that’s where he was, working out in 1955 at Moore Recreational Park, when he noticed a familiar bow-legged, unforgettable ex-teammate who had been taken in the ninth round of the NFL Draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
“I said, ‘Johnny, what are you doing here?’” Laneve recalled. “He said, ‘They cut me, Ron. ... They never even looked at me. All I ever did was throw the ball on the sideline. They didn’t give me a shot.’”
The Steelers — now owners of six Super Bowl victories and a reputation nearly peerless among professional sports franchises — also made one of the biggest personnel blunders in modern football history. After picking Unitas, they quickly discarded the hard-working hometown kid who would go on to set quarterbacking standards.
“He had just been cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers,” Laneve said. “We sat there for probably 10 minutes and talked, and that was it. He said, ‘Ron, let’s go work out.’ We went [onto the field]. ‘Run this pattern, run that pattern.’
“He’d throw the ball until the sun went away.”
That fall, Laneve went back to College Park, where he earned three letters on scholarship with the Terps.
Unitas went to work in construction — and joined a local sandlot football team in Bloomfield, Pennsylvania.
Laneve didn’t stay in close contact with Unitas. But, “Once he started to get going, I followed his career every bit of the way.”
In 1956, it got going. Unitas signed with the Colts. Four weeks into the season, starter George Shaw broke his leg against the Bears. On trotted Johnny U ... to throw a pick-six. And then fumble on two ensuing possessions.
It got better. Unitas, as Laneve knew well, would not be kept down.
In December 1958, the Colts were in the NFL championship game — and on television sets around the country. That night, the legend of Johnny Unitas was born. For all intents and purposes, so was the modern NFL.
Unitas’ shrewd play-calling and surgical passing — his performance introduced “two-minute offense” into football lexicon and strategy — led the Colts to victory in the first sudden-death game in league history.
Laneve watched it on TV at his grandfather’s house in Ohio. He was so excited for his old teammate that he called the Baltimore Colts and left a congratulatory message, hoping his sentiments would find their way to Unitas.
Two days after the title game, the phone rang at Laneve’s house.
Here’s Laneve to tell it:
“My wife [Mary Jane] picks up the phone and says, ‘Hello.’ The voice on the other end says, ‘Hello, this is Johnny Unitas. Is Ron Laneve home?’ She said, ‘We don’t know any Johnny Unitas.’ And she hung up on him!
“That is a true story.”
The two friends eventually connected. Laneve apologized for the embarrassing mixup, knowing Unitas probably had “nine million phone calls” to make in the aftermath of a historic performance that sent his fame skyrocketing — including one call to a house that apparently hadn’t been informed of his greatness.
“Ron,” Unitas responded, “It was the best thing that happened to me that day. It brought me back to Earth.”
Still in awe
Laneve’s time in football didn’t end after he graduated from Maryland. Soon after, the young physical education teacher became the varsity coach at Robert E. Peary High School in Rockville.
One year in the 1960s, Laneve gathered a handful of his players and drove to Western Maryland College (now McDaniel), where the Colts held their yearly training camp in Westminster. He wanted his athletes to see how professionals approached the game.
“I hadn’t told any of the kids I’d known Johnny,” he said. “We’re standing there ... and the Colts are walking up [from the practice field]. Johnny sees me and he runs over and he says, ‘Ron, how are you doing?’ And he shakes my hand.”
His players’ jaws dropped. “They were shocked,” Laneve said with a grin.
Laneve gave up coaching once he became a school administrator. He says, “Football did more for me than I did for football.”
He’s proud of a career in which he helped numerous kids. He’s proud that he was inducted into the South Hills High sports hall of fame. He’s proud of his family (he has three children and seven grandchildren), and his numerous retirement ventures.
And he’s proud that part of the mosaic of his life includes time spent close to a sports luminary way back when.
Unitas, who died in 2002 at age 69, was known for his toughness as much as he was for his passing exploits and three championships. But the fundamental lore of Johnny Unitas is rooted in his drive to master his craft, the countless hours on the practice field, particularly with Colts receiver and fellow Hall of Famer Raymond Berry.
Laneve experienced it, too. It’s something he’s carried with him all these years later.
Said Laneve, still in awe, “I’ll tell you this: You got on that field, nobody worked harder than Johnny Unitas. ‘Come on, let’s do one more. One more. Let’s make this the best one. One more.’
“Those words keep ringing in my ears.”