NEW ORLEANS -- Joe Unitas was walking away from the New Orleans Saints bench, satisfied with the pregame hug and handshake he'd just exchanged with quarterback Drew Brees, even if they'd lacked any real intimacy as dozens of cameras clicked away.
Then, in an unexpected moment nearly two minutes later, Unitas felt someone grab his shoulder. It was Brees again. But this time, the cameras didn't see it.
"No matter what happens," Brees whispered to Unitas, "it's been a pleasure getting to know you."
The son of the famed Johnny Unitas quickly snapped back at Brees: "Stay positive! You're going to break the record. It's going to happen."
It did happen, of course. It happened while Unitas watched from section 115, row 29, seat 3, with 3:05 left in the first quarter, when Brees found Devery Henderson for a 40-yard pass, marking his 48th consecutive game with a touchdown. A record that had stood for 52 years now belonged to a new man, one who would have made Johnny Unitas proud.
"Records didn't matter to my dad," Joe told NFL.com as he stood in the bowels of the Superdome long after the Saints' 31-24 comeback victory over the San Diego Chargers. "Winning is all that mattered. He was very black and white. No gray area with him. You're either right or you're wrong. You won or you lost. You did, or you didn't."
Before the game started, as Brees and Unitas spoke, Joe seemed to be the one channeling his father as he reminded Brees to stay positive. In the middle of the game, Brees took that role over, specifically after the Saints had started to flounder at the start of the third quarter.
Unable to get a play off in time, they were forced to call a timeout to avoid a delay-of-game penalty, then committed two consecutive false starts. The Chargers were leading by 10, and an 0-5 record was starting to feel inevitable.
Until Brees began working his way down the Saints' bench, slapping hands with all of the players, jazzing them up, doing whatever was necessary to grind the gear into fourth when the vibe felt like first.
"I come off the field after committing a false start, thinking I need to get yelled at," Saints tackle Zach Strief said. "But there was just a refusal on our sideline to get down on guys. It's just, 'Hey, we've got to get going. We're going to make plays. Stay at it. Keep your head in the game. Move on.'
"This has been a very easy situation to get down on guys. Oh-and-four. All this stuff going on. All these outside things happening. It's easy to start turning and saying, 'It's you, it's you, it's you.' And it just hasn't happened here."
The momentum shifted almost immediately after Brees, with the help of running back Pierre Thomas, began inspiring teammates. The offense played with more discipline; the defense got more pressure. On the next two drives, Brees threw two more touchdown passes.
As the Saints began to surge, people stopped talking about that Unitas record. Instead, with suspended coach Sean Payton watching from a suite after he was given permission by the league to attend at Brees' request, it became about the two things that mattered most: The moment. And winning.
"We understand we have a mountain to climb here," Brees said. "But one step at a time. We've got the right people here, which makes you feel like you always have a chance."
With all due respect, it's hard to imagine this Saints season being remembered for more than the bounty scandal that rocked the organization. It will still take far more than one win -- and one major record -- to change that. Is it possible? Of course. The Saints have surely defied expectations in the past.
But on Sunday, the team was able to enjoy a moment that provided a dose of history with a sense of victory, with nothing else to distract them, in front of a friendly home crowd. A crowd, by the way, that included at least one new fan. After Brees broke the record, a fan purchased a Saints hat and gave it to Unitas. Although he is a Baltimore Ravens fan (having spent much of his life in Baltimore), Unitas still put that Saints hat on.
For the rest of that game, he cheered and cheered. He slapped high fives with the Saints fans in his section when Brees broke his father's record, and he spoke ecstatically when he realized that the record-breaking touchdown had been caught by a player wearing No. 19 -- the same number his father wore.
"It's incredible, man," the son of the legend told NFL.com from his seat right after the play took place. "The record-breaking touchdown went to No. 19! You can't make that stuff up. If you tried, people would just say, 'No way.' "
It must have been a bittersweet night for the Unitas family. Johnny Unitas' most famous record had fallen. Yet, it didn't feel as if anything had been lost. Maybe that's because Joe Unitas, on this special Sunday night, was watching a quarterback break Johnny U's record in a manner that would have made his father proud: Happy about the accomplishment, but happier about the win.