Through her tears, Sandra Unitas steps up to carry her husband's legacy forward with energy and skill
Sandra Unitas visits the Babe Ruth Museum section dedicated to her husband, Johnny Unitas. (Sun photo by Jed Kirschbaum)
She was devastated, weeping uncontrollably for hours at a time. But she also had a house in Timonium filled with relatives and friends. She had a funeral to organize. Children to comfort. Obligations. Decisions.
Finally, she sought help from the man who had always been there for her.
"Give me a swift kick in the butt, John," was her unconventional prayer. "Keep me going."
It has been nearly four months since Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack on Sept. 11 and sent all of Baltimore into mourning, reeling from the loss of its most beloved hero, the greatest football quarterback of all time, the man with the golden arm.
For his widow, it has been a far more personal and more terrible blow. For 30 years, they were married. She was the loving wife and dutiful mother who quietly attended to home and family while her celebrated husband, the beloved football warrior, traveled in the spotlight.
Yet despite her grief, Sandra Unitas has taken up a new role - that of standard-bearer for her husband's legacy. And for a woman who spent three decades in the background, family and friends marvel at the energy - and skills - she has brought to bear.
"She's a tough cookie, absolutely," says Nora Koontz, a longtime friend. "What's she's doing now is part of her healing."
Recently, Sandra flew to Louisville to speak to hundreds gathered for the annual presentation of the Golden Arm Award, the honor going to the nation's top college quarterback.
She helped unveil a Unitas statue at the Ravens stadium, making remarks to more than 70,000 football fans at halftime of a Ravens game. She has lobbied Maryland's governor-elect on behalf of the Babe Ruth Museum and overseen the museum's display of 200 pieces of her husband's memorabilia.
She's given speeches, done TV interviews. She's even taken a new job title, as "community liaison" for Towson University's multimillion-dollar stadium upgrade, helping sell the facility's naming rights. She'd like to see the facility named for her late husband, but knows she'll have to find $5 million to do it.
"I know what they say. You don't make any big decisions in the first year (after losing a spouse)," the 58-year-old Florida native says quietly. "I guess I'm going against all the recommendations."
She needs to be strong
It's been a remarkable transformation for a woman who rarely found herself in the public limelight. But friends say they aren't surprised, and think the one-time airline attendant will prove to be an effective spokeswoman for her husband's legacy.
"She has strong character, but she's been doubly strong because she knows that's what John would want her to do," says Claudia Grimm, 54, of Timonium, a friend for 22 years. "She feels a responsibility now to his legacy. She feels she needs to be as strong."
Being strong is something Sandra knows a little bit about. Seven years ago, she began talking publicly about her experience as an incest survivor. She recalled the terror of being a 5-year-old who was hurt by her own father.
Her Tallahassee childhood included an emotionally troubled stepfather, stints in foster care and even a court-ordered reassignment to her father. And while the traumatic effects of that experience linger (even a too-tight hug can raise painful memories), her marriage has been happy and stable, her children loving and supportive.
She calls John "the first man I could trust," making their long marriage all the more remarkable an accomplishment.
"My whole life was about him and the children and I was very satisfied with that," she says.
Their three children, Joey, Chad, and Paige, who are now 28, 24, and 20, respectively, have always been remarkably unaffected by their father's celebrity, friends say. They are typical twentysomethings, much in the same way that Sandra is the consummate suburban housewife with a Nordstrom wardrobe and an unaffected manner that so perfectly fit her late husband's modest demeanor.
"She's raised the kids remarkably well," says Shirley Green, 68, of Bethel Park, Pa., John's younger sister. "She had an inner strength. She was always down to earth, friendly and loved her kids."
Sandra met John 32 years ago while selling toys in Stewart's department store. She'd been hired to promote a new football game. So had he. Two years later, they were married in a Reno courthouse.
Parent by default
It was not always easy being married to a celebrity, of course. He was away a lot. In public places, they'd often find themselves besieged by autograph-seeking fans. But, she said, John never complained about the rigors of fame, so she didn't either.
"When people asked me what it was like to be married to a living legend, I'd tell them it was very lonely," she says.
Her husband also had five children from his previous marriage to Dorothy Jean Unitas, who died in May at age 67. Sandra says she's become their collective "parent by default" since John's death, and describes their relations as friendly and supportive.
Sandra and John lived on a 20-acre farm in Baldwin until a year ago. The couple had wanted to downsize, to prepare for, if not retirement, then semi-retirement, and they moved into a townhouse.
On the day John died, she was having her hair done at a Towson salon. She received a cell phone call from a friend. "Have you heard that John's had a heart attack?" She was doubtful.
She'd heard rumors just like that several times since John had suffered his first major heart attack - while undergoing knee replacement surgery nine years earlier. She called the rehab center where John had gone for treatment. His longtime therapist got on the line - "Call your internist," he told her, his voice quavering.
John died on a Wednesday. The funeral didn't take place until the following Tuesday. John hadn't left instructions. He was never the sentimentalist. She banned most flowers (he thought them a waste of money), and television cameras (inappropriate and exploitive), but opened the funeral mass to the public - an acknowledgement of how much the fans' affections had meant to her husband.
The feelings of loss and sorrow were overwhelming. She lost 12 pounds in the month that followed. "It was unbelievable," she recalls of those days.
Listening to memories
Suddenly, she was presented with a lot of decisions. Matters of insurance and finance, estate planning, taxes and contracts. John had provided for help. Money has not been a problem, she says, but the new responsibilities loomed large.
In the midst of all that came a call from Towson University. Just days before John's death, they had printed a brochure announcing their stadium campaign. It had included a photograph of John who'd agreed to serve as community liaison over the summer.
Landing John had been quite the coup for Towson. The university's athletic program has never been particularly high profile. Would his widow allow them to continue to use the Unitas name?
Yes, she told them. If John wanted this, then it will happen. And Sandra took one step further, she'd be happy to help out, too. After all, her two youngest children were Towson students. His eldest daughter a graduate. It was a chance to do something for John, and for them, too.
"That was incredibly exciting," says Gary Rubin, the school's vice president of advancement. "And fitting. She's already doing a fantastic job in raising support. When she speaks, people listen."
But more important, perhaps, she listens. That's because this is what it's like to be the widow of Johnny Unitas: You get introduced, people want to meet you, and then they want to tell you stories - about how much your husband meant to them, about some personal encounter, perhaps, or just a recollection of his football accomplishments.
"I tell them now I know where he was when he was late so often for dinner," she says. "He was creating a memory for them."
'He was my best friend'
She gets asked to sign autographs (a new and slightly peculiar experience), but mostly they want to tell her what a great man her husband was. Sandra finds comfort in that. But some days it can be emotionally exhausting.
The hardest of all is to see John on television or film. The tears still come easily at moments like that. "It can still get very emotional," she says.
"He was my best friend. That's really hard to deal with," she says softly. "He's the one I would talk with right now to help deal what I've been through."
Still, friends say, Sandra has proved resilient. She's written more than 1,000 thank-you notes since her husband died. In public engagements, she's a warm and dynamic presence - whether at the podium or meeting guests in a crowd.
"She's gained a lot of self-confidence, much more than she ever thought she would have," says Richard Sammis, 62, of Timonium, a longtime family friend.
Koontz, 52, a former next-door neighbor in Baldwin, says continuing John's projects has helped her "feel his presence" in her life. And hearing from so many people who loved him has been a comfort, too.
"Sandy never does anything but a great job, whether it's throwing a dinner party or gardening, and this will be the same way, too," she says.
For now, Sandra has chosen to take it all one step at a time. Last month was the first Christmas without John. She and her children spent it together in Long Beach, Calif., with eldest son Joey, an aspiring actor, and his family.
Soon, she'll be filling in for John at a charity golf tournament in Florida. And then there will be board meetings for the Babe Ruth Museum, talking to businesses about the stadium project, and who knows where else she'll be needed to represent her late husband.
"It will take more than one person to fill his shoes, but I'm thankful to have the chance," she says. "It makes me feel a little bit closer to him."