My encounter with Johnny Unitas at a 49er game

I was an active kid. Climbing 40 feet up into a tree, leaving home each day to roam around a wild and forlorn cemetery, hiding in shrubs, and playing Capture The Flag. During the elementary school day, as girls, we had to stay on the macadam, playing hop scotch, jacks, tether ball or two square. The boys were allowed out on the field, playing baseball, football, kick ball, and soccer. That is where I wanted to be, not because the boys were there, but that was the place where I could run and throw and be part of an exciting team. But since I was a girl, and had to wear a dress, I wasn’t allowed on the field to play these games.

Fast forward to high school … physical education for girls was a little more enriching. Here we were able to play basketball … but wait … we could only dribble the ball three bounces, and were required to pass it. Thus, none of the girls in the sixties learned to dribble the ball. There were no sports teams on which girls could compete interscholastically. We were relegated to dancing, song or cheerleading as our only outlets for performance sports. Title 9, the law that covered sports equality in education, did not exist until 1972.

So, reluctantly, I competed to become a song leader, leading cheers and songs at football and basketball games. It went against my grain to do this, but, being a very human and socially insecure teenager, it was a “performance” activity I could do. So I competed and won the position of song leader along with six other girls. We became the squad, practicing daily at our different homes, developing cheer and song routines, maintaining huge appetites, and learning to sew the different outfits that were required for us to wear twice weekly.

During the summer before our senior year, we attended a song and cheer camp at Lake Tahoe, where teams from all over the state came to practice and compete. At the end of the week-long workshop session our squad succeeded in winning the state championship for song leaders. Being on the more introverted side of existence I wasn’t particularly impressed by this accolade, and had no idea what was about to happen as a result.


September and school started for our senior year. Friday night football games with half-time performances began, consuming much of my time. October arrived, which meant taking the SATs and preparing to submit college applications. I had hopes of going directly to a 4-year university the following fall.

In early October we were called into our advisor’s office. He had just received a call from the 49er organization, saying that our squad had been selected to be 49er cheerleaders for home games at Kezar stadium in San Francisco. (This was before they could afford professional cheerleaders.) We were the inexpensive version. So, on game days, we piled into our parents’ station wagons, and made the hour-long trip south to San Francisco.

It was October 31, 1965. Halloween. The 49ers were playing the Baltimore Colts. When we entered the stadium, I swallowed, thinking I might be sick. I felt a weight drop into my stomach. Approximately 60,000 people filled the stands. I wanted to turn around, go back to the car and return home. Since that was impossible, the next best alternative was to spend the game in the restroom. But, I couldn’t let the rest of the squad down, so I just held my breath, and marched on to the field, like I belonged there. Every acting skill I possessed was called into play at that moment.

Rotating around to a different section of the field, after each cheer, we were able to circumnavigate the field a couple of times before halftime. At one point, we were positioned behind the Colts’ bench. Unimposing, it resembled a simple wooden bench like one would see at a park. An oxygen tank hung over the end of the bench. A player picking up the mask, held it up to his face, breathing in the oxygen. This player, number 19, turned around, looked at me, and asked me if I wanted some. Grinning at me I noticed that he was missing some front teeth. I, of course, refused the offer, and then resumed my cheering duties.


During halftime, after we performed on the center field, a friend came out of the stands to talk to me. He had observed the interaction between me and number 19.

“Do you know who you were talking to?” he asked. I responded that no, I didn’t. Just some guy with missing front teeth.

“That was Johnny Unitas,” he replied. I responded that I had no idea who Johnny Unitas was.

“Just one of the best quarterbacks in history,” he informed me. I reminded him that I was there to root for the 49ers … not the Colts. He just responded with one of the longest eye rolls I have ever experienced.

I am recalling this experience this week because the 49ers are now on their way to the Super bowl … and when they get this close to a championship I pay attention. I become a fan.

At one point I was highly resentful that there were no competitive sports for girls. But, in a funny way, not being able to compete in sports in high school, gave me an experience as a “49er cheerleader” that, looking back, brings a smile to my face. Thus, in retrospect, everything seems to happen for a reason. So I think I’ll just celebrate what did happen, and also celebrate what is happening now for girls and women in the sports arenas today.