[NOTE: The black and white photo that was previously atop this post has been replaced with a far more excellent color picture. Thank you, Hit Bull Win Steak, for pointing out the existence of this version.]
In 1961, LIFE magazine managed to get every starting NFL quarterback — including six future Hall of Famers — together in a studio for a group portrait. The photographer, Ralph Morse, was never one to have his subjects just stand there and smile, so he asked Unitas, Starr, Tarkenton and the rest to, in effect, act like quarterbacks. The result is somehow ridiculous, charming and kind of cool, all at the same time. (All 14 quarterbacks are ID'd below.)
Morse knew that there was no way he could follow 14 professional quarterbacks around the country individually — the way LIFE's sports editors wanted him to.
"Those editors were crazy," Morse, now 96 years old and still spry, recently told me. "One week I might fly to Dallas or St. Louis or Detroit to photograph one of the players, and maybe he'd be great. Or maybe he'd be awful. Either way, the assignment would take weeks — months! — and there was no guarantee we'd end up with what we wanted, anyway. I thought the only way I could make a decent picture is if I took it in one place, at one time, with all of the players. I called the NFL commissioner, Pete Rozelle, and told him what I wanted to do. He said I was crazy. He told me they'd have to do it on their day off, and they'd never agree to that.
"I said, 'Look. You're the commissioner, aren't you? They'll do what you tell them, won't they?' I suggested we do it in Chicago, somewhere in the center of the country. All they had to do was bring clean uniforms, and show up. We set a date, and I flew out to Chicago a week early to rent a studio. I had a local high school football team come to the studio every day for that week, and we practiced all sorts of scenarios until we had one that worked — the guys in front tossing the ball underhand, the guys in back throwing overhand. We also set up a sheet of plexiglass with a hole cut in it for the camera lens to poke through, so I wouldn't get creamed by 14 footballs coming at me.
"All the quarterbacks arrived on the scheduled day, and we had the whole thing figured out ahead of time. These guys were famous. They were busy. They didn't want to mess around. They wanted to get into their uniforms, take the picture, get out of their uniforms and go. And that's what happened."
[One of the most versatile photojournalists of the 20th century, Morse also made memorable portraits of dead people. Or rather, he famously photographed the torched skull of a Japanese soldier impaled on a tank on Guadalcanal. See that gruesome, controversial picture and read Morse's memories of making it.]
One last thing worth noting here is that the great Y.A. Tittle (front row, far right), who was playing for New York at that point in his career, was just 35 years old in this picture. Old for an NFL quarterback, sure — but Jebus, he looks like he's 65! Come to think of it, I've never seen a photo of the guy that made him look less than, say, 50.
Hell of a player, though; he's one of just 11 Giants to have his number retired.
Ben Cosgrove is the editor of LIFE.com. Picture This is his weekly (and occasionally more frequent) feature for The Stacks.
Photo Credit: Ralph Morse—Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
Above, back row, l-r: Milt Plum, Bobby Layne,* Sam "The Rifle" Etcheverry, Bill Wade, Bart Starr,* Johnny Unitas,* Norm Snead, Zeke Bratkowski; front row, l-r: Jim Ninowski, Fran Tarkenton,* Don Meredith, John Brodie, Sonny Jurgensen,* Y.A. Tittle.*
* Hall of Famer