It was only a 3-yard pass, hardly worth watching on a highlights film. John Unitas, the Colts' rookie quarterback, flipped the ball to his tight end, who fell into the end zone.

The play averted a Baltimore shutout. It also provided a glimpse of a pattern that would come to grip Colts fans for much of the next five seasons: Unitas passing for touchdowns, game after game, a seamless stretch that would evolve into one of the most enduring feats in football.

Forty years ago, Unitas took the field in command of a streak that may never be equaled: 47 consecutive regular-season NFL games in which he threw at least one scoring pass. Historians place Unitas' achievement with the loftiest of sports records, such as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak in baseball.

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of Unitas' skein because of what he didn't do that day. On Dec. 11, 1960, he failed to throw a scoring pass in a 10-3 loss to the Los Angeles Rams, ending the five-year touchdown spree that had begun against the same club in 1956.

During that span, he passed for more than 1 1/2 miles, led the Colts to two NFL championships and launched a career that last year earned him Pro Football Hall of Fame honors as the game's all-time premier quarterback.

Of all Unitas' accomplishments, however, none has been as long-lived - or as easily forgotten - as the 47-gamer. Why don't fans recall the streak? Because it's an anomaly, said Frank Deford, senior contributing writer for Sports Illustrated and a commentator for National Public Radio.

"Unitas' record is so outstanding that, to many, it simply doesn't exist," said Deford, a native Baltimorean. "It's the tree-falling-in-the-forest thing. If no one is there to threaten the record, then nobody talks about it."

The fact that no one has made a real run at Unitas' mark - Miami's Dan Marino (30 games) came closest - keeps it sheathed in obscurity, Deford said:

"It's the same reason no one remembers baseball's Jack Chesbro winning 41 games in one year, or Wilt Chamberlain averaging 50 points a season in basketball. Like Unitas, they've gone so far beyond everyone else, they're not even on people's radar."

Looking back, Unitas downplayed the milestone, now as then.

"I never paid much attention to records - that was for the newspaper guys," he said last week. "All I cared about was winning. Nothing else really mattered."

He said he didn't care whether he passed, scrambled or handed off for the score, as long as he got the job done.

At 67, he is as stoop-shouldered as ever. In his prime, Unitas would uncork a throw for a touchdown, then trot off the field with the gait of a geezer. His age has caught up with his gait.

Signing autographs is a pain; so is cutting a steak. The nerves in Unitas' right hand are shot, a reminder of the passes he threw, the poundings he took, the plaudits he received.

In the course of the 47-game streak, Unitas completed 697 passes for 10,645 yards and 102 touchdowns, more than half of them to Hall of Famers Raymond Berry and Lenny Moore. Seven times, Unitas threw for four TDs in one game. In one remarkable season (1959), he passed for at least two scores in every game.

All of this in an era when defenders were seldom flagged for pummeling passers or receivers.

"John's is one of those records where you just want to stand back and applaud for what a great one it is," Don Shula said. Shula, pro football's all-time winningest coach, played with Unitas at the start of that string and coached him in its aftermath.

He also coached Marino in his heyday. But no quarterback sacrificed himself like Unitas, said Shula.

"He was so unselfish, and tough, that he'd hang in the pocket and wait and wait until the last possible instant, to give Raymond and Lenny time to get open. Then he'd deliver on target, knowing he was going to take the big hit," Shula said.