September 16, 2002
PLEASE PARDON this personal memory of Johnny Unitas, even though it does not stem from the few special times I was actually in his company here in Baltimore. While natives can attest to seeing him throw footballs at Memorial Stadium -- or buy shirts at Hamburger's -- my experience was limited to what I saw, until about 1969, on black-and-white television.
As a lad in Massachusetts, I thought Unitas was a fabulous quarterback, of course, so cool under pressure, and a modest man. My dad admired him, too.
But we did not appreciate Unitas' talents as much as Madalyn DiLorenzo did. Madalyn was the first kid I knew who became obsessed with a "remote sports figure" -- that is, a professional athlete who played for a franchise far from the city or state where the fan lived. Madalyn wasn't much of a (then-Boston) Patriots fan -- Babe Parilli, quarterback -- but she loved football and this Unitas.
And she wanted the rest of us to love him, too. She proselytized about him. Madalyn had a very strong personality, with a manner of speaking patterned after Don Rickles, and she was a straight-A student. She was brilliant, tough and savvy beyond her years, so her declarations that Unitas was the greatest quarterback carried considerable weight. We didn't argue with her.
Still, most of us thought Madalyn was a little crazy, talking about Johnny Unitas all the time. What did we know from Baltimore and the Colts? We were growing up in the Boston area, and not even New York is as myopic and as smug about its own teams.
But here's my little story.
In seventh or eighth grade, Madalyn DiLorenzo, who exhibited dragon-lady qualities as a 13-year-old, condescended to take a boyfriend. She picked slim and taciturn Norman Ledoux. Why? Because Norman Ledoux agreed with her on Johnny Unitas. He, too, thought No. 19 was a genius in high-tops.
I'm not sure which came first -- whether Madalyn found Norman attractive because he liked Johnny Unitas or whether she bent him to her will after the first kiss. (Madalyn was the most powerful girl I knew back then; if she's not running a major corporation or Vegas casino by now, I'd be very surprised.)
But I know this: By ninth grade, Norman was trying out for quarterback on the freshman team. He had the physique of a cross-country runner, the demeanor of a botanist, but there he was, trying to connect on quick-out patterns, trying to be ... Johnny Unitas! And he wasn't bad, and it pleased Madalyn no end. She was like his agent.
Norman had a very few, brief shining moments as a freshman QB. He also got clobbered a lot. He retired from football after one season to devote more of his attention to his studies and to Madalyn DiLorenzo. They were last seen walking away from high school graduation, hand in hand, kissing a lot, in love, bonded for life by Unitas.
All of which is fine except that the dollar figure in my pal's premise -- $2.1 million a year -- is short by about $4 million a year. The sale of the name to some corporation could be worth closer to $6 million a year, based on recent comparables. Besides, fans shouldn't have to pay for this. What this issue needs, quite simply, is some good, old-fashioned Do-The-Right-Thing from the big shots calling the shots.
Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun