September 18, 2002
RAYMOND BERRY was at the lectern, giving his fond eulogy for Johnny Unitas, when I looked up at the nearly 90-foot ceiling of the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen and had the strange, fleeting and irreverent vision of a football spiraling perfectly through the somber atmosphere, under the contemporary-Gothic buttresses, all the way from the back of the great place and through the main nave to the sanctuary.
The cathedral is 373 feet long, 41 feet longer than St. Patrick's in New York, and 373 is just a little longer than a football field plus end zones. You just know Unitas could have handled the challenge -- a two-minute drill while the cardinal was not looking: Unitas to Berry, Unitas to Berry, all the way from the Charles Street doors to the high altar.
Forgive me, Father, for thinking such frivolous thoughts on such a sad occasion. But I am going to take a leap and say that I am not the only sinner, not the only one who had this strange vision during Unitas' funeral yesterday. The long aisle of the cathedral begged for a forward pass, especially with Berry, the Hall of Famer, standing at the lectern up in the sanctuary.
"You elevated all of us," Berry said, speaking to Unitas in a mild Texas drawl on behalf of his old Colts teammates. "You made the impossible possible. You filled our memory banks full."
Looking back on all that, Berry said, he knew that being a Baltimore Colt during the Unitas era was a "once-in-a-lifetime experience" and that Unitas was a "once-in-a-lifetime quarterback."
You were tough, Johnny U.
You worked hard at the craft of throwing footballs. You were courageous. You led by example.
"We thank the Lord for your talents," Berry said, "but we [also] thank him for sending you to Baltimore."
It seemed like half of Baltimore was in the cathedral, too -- the mostly middle-aged half that knows the true meaning of Unitas to Berry. They came in dark suits and simple black dresses, some looking stylish and well-groomed, some in blue-and-white No. 19 football jerseys with "UNITAS" across the back. They came together in groups in cars and vans, as they had back when the Colts still played at Memorial Stadium, and many came by themselves. Bette Schaum paid $16 for a cab ride from Highlandtown and she had to give the cabbie directions to the cathedral.
There were men in their 50s and 60s, who had grown up with the Colts and who understood, as no young fan of the Ravens can yet, what Unitas means to Baltimore and to modern memory.
They know why Unitas belongs in American Valhalla, and it's not just because of his impressive passing statistics. It's because of what he represented -- the tough, modest, no-foolishness sports superstar; the lunch-bucket hero who does his job, day in and day out, without looking for attention.
Today's sports-celebrity-mad culture demands more. It demands controversy, even scandal, showmanship and in-your-face, made-for-TV bravado. We're all kind of sick of it, to be honest, and the death of John Unitas reminds us that, even as we are surrounded by cynicism, we still long for the good part of the good old days -- loyalty to team and town, a sense of purpose (even if the purpose was completing a touchdown pass with under a minute to go), courage, toughness, humility, dignity, grace.
The ones at the funeral, they understood this.
And they understood how Unitas and his adopted hometown were perfect for each other.
Another thought occurred as I watched people file into the cathedral yesterday: We are such an unpretentious bunch here in Baltimore, grateful for the emergence of a genuine hero now and then, content to savor the memories they create for years. We are not always searching for the Next Big Thing. We appreciate what's authentic -- the real hero who performs with courage and confidence, and lives his life with family and friends in a way that merits respect and, in the end, tears.
It's not just longing for some long-gone Baltimore that drives us. It's not that we're all hopelessly nostalgic. It's that we know and respect the One True Thing that only comes along once in a lifetime.
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