A few weeks ago, some fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers graced afund-raiser for the foundation that Lenny Moore operates in honor of his lateson. Art Donovan, a guy who loves salami, and Gino Marchetti, a giant who hada sandwich named for him, chewed the fat until they studied an old Baltimore Colts team photo.
"I was sitting next to Art," Marchetti said, "and he kept pointing at guys,saying, `He's gone, he's gone, he's gone.' Then I started pointing to guys andsaying `pretty soon, pretty soon, pretty soon.' ... Thank God I had the radiooff in my car when the news broke that John died. I was home when my wifeheard it, and she got in hysterics. I thought someone had bombed a building,and I told her, this is just like another tower gone down."
John Unitas died last Wednesday at 69 on the one-year anniversary of theSept. 11 attacks. His funeral yesterday led to an unscheduled reunion for somecommon men who followed him to uncommon achievement, names like Marchetti andDonovan, Raymond Berry and Jim Parker. There were other legends like John Mackey, legendary characters like Alex Hawkins, and supporting players likeJim Mutscheller and Andy Nelson who came to Baltimore and still call it home.
"When you have a community fabric," said Mike Curtis, the brilliantlinebacker, "and you get a rip in it, you can repair it, but it always has ascar."
Unitas' death hit the second generation, the Bert Jones-Lydell Mitchell-JoeEhrmann teams of the 1970s, just as hard.
"I was a rookie in 1971, and got to play two years with John," said DonMcCauley, the rugged all-purpose back. "To me, he was like a god. I would getto offensive meetings early, and sit on his flank to see what he was writing."
Mike Barnes, a defensive lineman, came to the Colts in 1973, the yearUnitas concluded his career in San Diego. A decade later, the Colts playedtheir last game in Baltimore before Robert Irsay moved the franchise toIndianapolis, and Barnes said that Unitas and his contemporaries looked outfor those left behind.
"His teams were more than kind to us," Barnes said, "especially when we allsaw that the wheels were coming off [the franchise]. I'm envious of therelationship his teams had. They built something special, and we didn't get achance to carry it forward."
Barnes, who settled in Sparks, has a construction company that has beenawarded some military contracts. He came to know Dick Borbone, a decoratedaviator who came from the same Pittsburgh neighborhood that produced Unitas.When Borbone came down with cancer, Barnes reconnected him with Unitas, andthe two talked for hours.
Unitas also connected with the family of Jeff Charlebois, who had apromising diving career at Calvert Hall cut short in an auto accident in thelate 1970s. Paul Charlebois, Jeff's father, never played a down in the NFL,but he was Unitas' racquetball partner and fortunate to be part of his innercircle.
"Jeff's a professional comedian," Charlebois said. "He was married twoSaturdays ago in California, and he's paralyzed from the chest down. In thedarkest moment of my life, John was there for us. He secured a private planeand arranged to fly Jeff and I to a specialist in Ohio. He didn't tell anyone.Those are the kinds of things John Unitas did."
On his drive up from Naples, Fla., Charlebois stopped in Georgia and pickedup Jimmy Orr, one of Unitas' favorite targets. Dan Sullivan, one of Unitas'offensive lineman, came down from Massachusetts and recalled gestures thatweren't so grand. When two of his sons attended an ice hockey camp in a Bostonsuburb, a bored Unitas visited Sullivan and asked if there was anything hecould do, maybe cut the grass.
In the 1964 NFL championship game, the highest-scoring team in the leaguewas shut out by the Browns, 27-0. Hawkins and Orr awoke and looked out thewindow of their hotel in Cleveland, saw the flags stiff from the wind off LakeErie, and knew they were in trouble.
Unitas might not have thrown the tightest spiral, but he kept the Coltstight.