The Unluckiest Duck
In sports parlance, it’s often called being “Wally Pipped,” in honor of the former New York Yankees first baseman who once asked to sit out a game due to a headache, only to see his replacement—Lou Gehrig—start a Major League Baseball record 2,130 consecutive games, during a Hall of Fame career in which he won six World Series titles.
It refers, in short, to talented players who through some stroke of bad luck were kept on the sidelines by their "temporary" replacements. Were it not for Wally Pipp though, the term may well be “George Shawed,” in honor of the former Oregon Ducks quarterback, born eight years after Pipp took what he once referred to as “the two most expensive aspirin in history.”
Shaw, BS ’55 led Portland's Grant High School to two state championships before becoming a standout athlete at the University of Oregon, where he played six different positions for the football team—quarterback, safety, running back, receiver, kicker, and punter—and earned first team All-America honors for his performances on the gridiron and as a center fielder on the baseball diamond. Just how versatile a football player was Shaw? In his first year, “Six-Way Shaw,” as Sports Illustrated dubbed him, led the country as a defensive back with 13 interceptions; as a quarterback in his last, he led it in total offense (1,536 yards), while also ranking among the top 15 nationwide in punting and extra point kicking.
Sixty-two years after playing his last snap at Hayward Field, Shaw still holds the UO’s career record for interceptions with 18, and his 13 picks in 1951 is still the most in school history. That same year he picked off three passes apiece in wins over Arizona and Idaho, numbers that still have him tied for the UO’s single-game record, more than six decades later.
It was as a quarterback that he really made a name for himself though, and in 1954 he led the NCAA and set a single-season UO record with 1,358 passing yards, breaking Norm Van Brocklin BS ’49, MS 51’s mark by more than 300 yards, and set a new conference total offense record. The team went 6-4 that season with wins over, among others, Washington and Oregon State, and the six victories were the most since 1948. Shaw was named to the All-Pacific Coast Conference first team, played in the East-West Shrine Game and the College All-Star Game, won the Pop Warner Award as the West Coast’s Most Valuable Player, and finished seventh in Heisman Trophy voting.
In short, George Shaw was one of the biggest names in college football in 1954—but before he could turn professional, he had to decide in which sport he wanted to make a career. The New York Yankees, who already had a rather good center fielder named Mickey Mantle on their roster, offered him a $10,000 signing bonus if he decided to play for them. On January 27, 1955 though, Shaw made UO history yet again when he became the first Duck picked No. 1 overall in the NFL Draft, when the Baltimore Colts called his name. The Colts offered Shaw, who earned an economics degree from the UO's College of Arts and Sciences, a $17,500 salary, so he turned the Yankees down, and moved from Eugene to Baltimore.
The list of players drafted first overall in the NFL includes, as you’d expect, a bevy of Hall of Famers, future Hall of Famers, and MVPs: Peyton Manning, Troy Aikman, Bo Jackson, John Elway, and Earl Campbell are just some of the football legends to hear their names called first on draft day. Shaw, however, is never mentioned in the same breath as those titans of the game, because after signing with the Baltimore Colts, one of the greatest athletes in UO history was Wally Pipped not once, but twice.
In 1954 the Colts went 3-9, a record that included a 48-0 season-opening loss to the Los Angeles Rams and a 35-0 loss to the Detroit Lions, and their 10.9 points per game average was worst in the league. The team drafted Shaw to replace previous starter Gary Kerkorian, a second-year placekicker and quarterback from Stanford who had thrown five more interceptions than touchdowns during his two years in the NFL.
Shaw was installed as the starting quarterback immediately, and during his rookie season the Colts went 5-6-1 and increased their scoring average by seven points per game, while his 1,586 passing yards and 10 touchdowns were both seventh-best in the league. Among the team’s five wins was a 28-13 win over the Lions, while the tie was a 17-17 affair with the Rams, gaining a measure of revenge against the architects of the Colts’ two biggest defeats the season prior. The Lions were so impressed by the mobile quarterback that they offered ten players in a trade to get him; the Colts declined the offer, believing they had a quarterback they could build the franchise around.
During the offseason the team demoted Kerkorian to third-string duty, and brought in a new quarterback to be Shaw’s backup. Drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers eight rounds and 101 picks behind the Duck was a scrawny signal caller from the University of Louisville, but the Steelers cut him before the 1955 season even began, saying he wasn’t smart enough to play quarterback in the NFL. While Shaw put up solid numbers during his first year, the former Cardinal and Steeler made $6 per game playing for a semipro team in Pittsburgh, while working construction to support his young family. When the Colts invited him for a tryout his uncle cautioned him against it, but desperate for a shot, the gangly quarterback—who reportedly weighed only 145 pounds as a freshman—headed to Baltimore, where the Colts signed him to provide depth behind Shaw.
In 1956, Shaw and the Colts started 1-2, with a season opening win over the Chicago Bears. During the fourth game of the season though, Shaw broke his leg. The second-stringer, who a year prior had been cut by the Steelers for not being NFL material, replaced him. His first pass was an interception returned for a touchdown; on the
following snap he fumbled the ball on a handoff, turning the ball over.
The Colts lost the game 58-27, dropping their record to 1-3.
In any other lifetime, the backup would've struggled to keep the team competitive and Shaw would've reclaimed his starting spot as soon as his leg healed. But fate had other plans for Shaw, and it most definitely had other plans for the backup—one Johnny Constantine Unitas, known simply to NFL fans as "Johnny U."
The Colts went 4-4 the rest of the way, and Unitas finished sixth in the NFL with 1,498 yards. A touchdown pass thrown in the final game of the season, a win over Washington, was the first thrown in a 47-game streak, a mark that stood for 52 years. The next season, Unitas led the NFL with 2,550 yards and 24 touchdowns, and was named the league’s Most Valuable Player. The following year they beat the New York Giants in overtime in the NFL Championship Game at Yankee Stadium, in what is known in the NFL as “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
By the time he retired in 1973—a season in which he was traded to the San Diego Chargers but lost his job to rookie Dan Fouts, BS '77—Unitas had won three championships and three MVP awards, and had been selected to ten Pro Bowls. His number was later retired by both the Baltimore Colts and the Louisville Cardinals, he was selected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1979, and in 2004 Sporting News rated him the No. 1 quarterback of all time.
For two years, Shaw had the best seat in the house to watch an NFL star launch his legendary career. Shaw felt he had more to offer, though, and in 1959—one year after “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” Shaw signed with the Colts’ opponent in that game, the Giants.
''No one knows how good Johnny is better than I do,'' Shaw once told the New York Times. ''I developed second-stringitis. I began to doubt myself. When you sit on the bench game after game, you start to lose interest. Johnny's the same age I am, and I knew if I stayed with the Colts, I'd spend my life on the bench.''
Sapped of his speed following his leg injury, Shaw was as little used in New York as he was in Baltimore though, and only attempted 36 passes as the Giants, with 1959 NFL MVP Charlie Conerly at quarterback, returned to the championship game—where they lost to the Colts yet again. Shaw replaced an injured Conerly during the 1960 season, and threw for 1,263 yards and 11 touchdowns to lead the team, but with an 0-3-1 record and questions about his confidence level and leadership ability being raised, was let go during the offseason in favor of Y.A. Tittle, a four-time Pro Bowler with the San Francisco 49ers who unseated Conerly and went on to earn three MVP awards and appear in three more Pro Bowls as a Giant.
Undeterred, Shaw signed with the expansion Minnesota Vikings, who at the time were coached by Van Brocklin, whose UO single-season passing record Shaw had broken seven years earlier. The Vikings hedged their bets though, and in the NFL Draft prior to the season picked a quarterback in the third round and another in the twentieth.
Shaw started the first game in Vikings franchise history, a win over the Bears, but only completed a pair of passes before being replaced by the third-round rookie, as Van Brocklin decided to take a good look at his roster. The rookie promptly threw four touchdown passes in the game, becoming the first quarterback to ever throw four touchdowns on debut.
(As an aside, that feat has since been matched by just one other
quarterback: Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota, BS ’14,
who threw four touchdown passes in his first game for the Tennessee
Titans in 2014.)
At that point, having been through it already with Johnny Unitas and the Colts, Shaw must've had an all-too-unpleasant sense of déjà vu. The rookie Viking was none other than Fran Tarkenton, a scrambling quarterback who often clashed with Van Brocklin, but who took his chance as a starter and ran with it. Tarkenton went on to make nine Pro Bowls during his career, and when he retired in 1978 he owned every major passing record. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1986, and had his jersey number retired by the Vikings, where he is still the franchise leader in wins, passing yards, and passing touchdowns.
Shaw lasted just one more season in professional football, joining the AFL’s Denver Broncos in 1962. He was unable to unseat incumbent starter Frank Tripuka though, as the quarterback—the first to throw for 3,000 yards in a season—led the Broncos to a 7-7 record and was named to the AFL All-Star team. Tripuka went on to have his number retired by the franchise, where it remained unworn until he allowed Peyton Manning to wear it upon signing with the Broncos in 2012.
Shaw retired following the 1962 season, having thrown for 5,829 yards and 41 touchdowns over his seven years in the league, a career in which he was replaced by two Pro Football Hall of Famers. All four quarterbacks who kept him out of starting jobs—Unitas, Conerly, Tarkenton, and Tripuka—had their jersey numbers retired by their respective teams, and the quartet combined for 22 Pro Bowl and All-Star Game appearances. Not bitter about the players who kept him on the bench, Shaw stated that Unitas was one of the closest friends he had.
Shaw moved back to Oregon following the end of his professional football career, and became an investment counselor while coaching Pop Warner teams in Portland. He passed away in 1998, one year before he planned on retiring, from myeloma, a cancer of the bone marrow. He was survived by wife Patricia; sons John, Patrick, and Matthew; daughters Mary and Anne; 12 grandchildren; and a brother, Thomas.
He was inducted into the University of Oregon Hall of Fame in 1992, honoring his exploits both in football and baseball.