Longtime NFL quarterback Earl Morrall, who filled in for an injured Johnny Unitas during the 1968 season and was named the league's Most Valuable Player for leading the Colts to the Super Bowl, died on Friday in Florida. He was 79.
Morrall played 21 pro seasons and started at quarterback for five NFL teams, but he will be remembered as the ultimate understudy because of that '68 season with the Colts and the 1972 season in which he took over for an injured Bob Griese for nine games and helped lead the Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins to a historic 17-0 record.
"He was just a great friend, a great family man and he fit right in in Baltimore,'' said Colts great Tom Matte. "He walked in and he was the answer for us. He did a great job. The Super Bowl was another story. Whatever could go wrong in that game did go wrong."
Unitas replaced Morrall in the second half of that game and led the Colts to their only touchdown. Morrall remained with the Colts long enough to replace a banged-up Unitas late in the Colts' victory over the Dallas Cowboys in the 1971 Super Bowl.
"He was someone who was as good a person as he was a player," said former Colts and Miami coach Don Shula in a statement released by the Dolphins. "When I think about Earl, what stands out the most is what a competitor he was on the field and how special he was off it.
"All Earl ever did was win games for me, whether it was as a starter or coming off the bench. What I remember the most, of course, is what he did in 1972 when he replaced Bob Griese after Bob's injury and kept our perfect season going until Bob returned in the playoffs.
"But Earl won a lot of games for me in Baltimore as well. And he did it in such a humble way — he was a great team player who would do whatever was asked of him. And he was an outstanding leader who inspired confidence in his teammates."
Morrall was drafted second overall out of Michigan State by the San Francisco 49ers in 1956, but played just four games that season before being traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers in a three-player deal for linebacker Marv Matuszak and a pair of first-round draft choices.
Just a year later, he was traded again, going to the Detroit Lions for future Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. He would come to Baltimore after six seasons in Detroit and three seasons with the New York Giants.
He was a full-time starter in only a handful of his 21 NFL seasons, but won an MVP award, appeared in three Super Bowls and played a major role in the only perfect season by an NFL team.
"There would not have been a perfect season without Earl Morrall," Griese told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel.
There was more to Morrall than just football. He served as mayor of Davie, Fla., during the 1990s and has a street named after him there, though friends say he never really sought personal accollades.
Former Colts safety Rick Volk said Friday that he looked up to Morrall during the three seasons they played together in Baltimore because he was a tough-as-nails competitor who always put his teammates first.
"He was the kind of guy who didn't let his ego get in front of him,'' Volk said. "He knew his place and he treated everybody fairly. He was just a selfless individual. He did everything for the team and never looked out for himself. He had been a starter in the league, but I think he thought if he could do a good job in backup situations, that would give him more years in the NFL."
Fans of the old Colts will always look back on that bittersweet 1968 season when Morrall led the Colts to a 13-1 record, but could not close the deal in the Super Bowl. It's hard for them not to summon up the memory of the fateful first-half play against the upstart Jets when Morrall took a pitch back from Matte and failed to see receiver Jimmy Orr wide open and waving at him in the end zone.
Instead of throwing a touchdown pass that might have altered NFL history, Morrall chose a different target and threw an interception that would loom large as the Jets pulled one of pro football's all-time greatest upsets.
Morrall would explain later that he couldn't see Orr because he had blended into the band waiting to march onto the field for halftime.
"He said he couldn't see me because the band or somebody was in the end zone getting ready to come on the field, because there was about 30 seconds to go in the half,'' Orr said on Friday. "He said he looked that way and didn't see anything, so he went down the middle."
It was a defining play in the history of the Colts in Baltimore, but Morrall didn't let it define him. He remained with the Colts through the next two seasons and got to come full circle when he replaced Unitas in the team's Super Bowl victory in 1971.
"He doesn't get enough credit for the job that he did,'' Matte said. "He took us to the Super Bowl and he took the Dolphins to a 17-0 season. He was a quality guy."