It's been five years since he left us.
Five years since his heart stopped at age 69, an act that, even now, feels much bigger than a man's physical death. It was dubbed the end of an era by a thousand scribes, but that barely scratched the surface. It was another reminder that even our granite-chinned icons - the ones whose strength we hope is a reflection and embodiment of our strength, as a city, a people, and a nation - cannot escape the steady drumbeat of mortality.
It has been five years since John Constantine Unitas, the "Greatest Quarterback Who Ever Lived," died on Sept. 11, 2002. And still, his passing stings.
Unitas would laugh to hear himself described in such idealized, romantic terms, according to his children and his wife, Sandra. It has become cliche to paint him as the simple man who represented something much larger than himself, the blue-collar idealist who did his job without complaint; the Golden Arm with the golden crew cut; the rare athlete who made an awkward shuffle and unorthodox throwing motion feel, especially in retrospect, like a work of both art and grace.
Even if the cliche is mostly truth (though admittedly mixed with a dash of black-and-white sentiment and blended with 1950s and '60s nostalgia), Unitas never saw himself that way. He was a steelworker, a ballplayer, a father, a husband, a friend. He was a man who liked to drink beer, golf and whistle whenever the spirit moved him, which was often. He loved listening to thunderstorms and good stories. He loved breaking bread with family and friends. He loved to tease the youngest of his eight children, Paige, whispering in her ear while she was practicing the piano, betting her that she couldn't finish without messing up.
It's gotten more difficult, though, in the five years since Unitas died to hold on to the places that either helped define him, or that were important to him. The steady waves of progress and time have eroded some of them entirely, the way the ocean chips away at limestone until there is nothing left. But if you know where to look, and if you listen to his children, his wife and some of his friends, you can still catch a glimpse of who Unitas was. You can still understand - or help someone young understand, if they're lucky - how he touched the lives of so many people in this city.
You'll see why, even today as the Ravens play their NFL home opener against the New York Jets, thousands of fans will stop in front of Unitas' bronze statue outside M&T Bank Stadium, reach out and rub his left shoe, hoping for a little bit of luck.
"A friend of mine told me once he was down by my dad's statue before a Baltimore-Pittsburgh game, and one of the Steelers fans walked up and spit on it," says Chris Unitas, one of Unitas' four sons from his first marriage. "About two seconds later, a Baltimore guy goes up and just cold-cocks him, just knocks him out with one punch. The guy was lying there on the ground and people were just walking by, stepping right over him, pretending not to notice. I had to laugh at that."
But the statue, as majestic as it is, probably isn't the best place to begin. Nor is Sports Legends at Camden Yards, even though you can see his jersey, his black high-top cleats and 200 pieces of Unitas memorabilia. You can even listen to a recording of him talking.
"It's tough hearing his voice," says Sandra Unitas, whom Unitas was married to for 30 years until he died. She still wears a gold necklace with Unitas' jersey number, 19, around her neck. "That's the hardest thing for me. I miss him. I miss everything about him."
Better perhaps to begin in the smoky, basement restaurant of Club 4100, a favorite Unitas hangout, which sits in the middle of Brooklyn Park, just over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, where the city line meets the northern tip of Anne Arundel County. It was here, sitting next to the jukebox, enjoying a Budweiser (out of the bottle) or a Jack Daniels Manhattan (on the rocks, with a splash of cherry juice, and always served in a brandy snifter) that Unitas spent countless evenings over 43 years. So many that George Coutros, the establishment's original owner, is the godfather to Unitas' son Joey.
"It was a working-class place full of working-class people, and that's who he was," Joey Unitas says. "He might have been a superstar quarterback, but that never mattered to him. He wanted to be with people like him."
Club 4100 was, and is today, the kind of bar where waitresses learn your name and never forget it. It's the kind of place where the co-owner, Manny Spanomanolis, still washes glasses, wipes down the bar, and pours free shots of peach schnapps to chase your dinner if you look lonely. The walls are blanketed with photos of Baltimore sports legends, and Unitas is captured again and again in black and white, his right arm cocked, his grin frozen in time, looking barrel-chested and forever young.
Over the years, the love affair the Baltimore Colts players had with Club 4100 became part of the restaurant's legend. Every Easter, Unitas would stand on the balcony and launch plastic footballs into the sky as a crowd of children jostled in the street, eager to catch them.
"It was just a great place in a great neighborhood," says Tom Matte, one of Unitas' friends and former teammates. "We could identify with the regular people because we didn't get paid the kind of money these kids are making today. We'd be there all the time, drinking together, telling stories. ... It's been tough lately, thinking about John. He was a good friend."
Even now, Sandra Unitas says, when her family goes to Club 4100 for a meal, they still stop to study the rows and rows of family pictures pinned to the walls.
"I took my fiance in there to look at the pictures recently, and I was like, `See, you can watch me grow up,' " says Chad Unitas, Sandra and John's second son, who has taken to sporting a crew cut just like his father. "It was like home. ... It's hard not having your best friend around, but at the same time, I did get to have him for 24 years of my life."
But time is running out on Club 4100. Spanomanolis is 66 and owns the restaurant with his younger brother Dino. Both are ready to retire. The place went up for auction last week, but thus far, no one has made a satisfactory offer. No one knows whether the memorabilia, which is included in the sale, will have a place under new ownership. But the memories will live on.
"The year before Dad passed, he was in the hospital, and he called us and said, `I can't eat this hospital food. Call Manny,' " Paige Unitas says. "He gets on the phone with Manny, and he says, `I'm sending the kids down. I'm hungry.' We came back with a box full of steak, a bunch of potatoes, a couple bottles of wine. There he was, drinking his glass of red wine in the hospital, saying it was good for his heart. It was great."
The Golden Arm
Club 4100 was far from Unitas' only haunt. For years, he was the co-owner of his own restaurant, The Golden Arm, a nice, quiet family place tucked inside a shopping center on York Road. It was, first and foremost, a business, but some nights when Unitas sensed that Dorothy, his first wife, could use a break from the daily grind of life, he'd bring the whole family in for a dinner.
"One of my most vivid memories is having dinner there when I was about 11 or 12, and then afterward we went over to the York Road Cinema and watched The Dirty Dozen," says Janice Unitas-DeNittis, the oldest child from his first marriage. "But my brothers were the main ones who were always down there."
Says Chris Unitas: "When I was a kid, I used to sneak in the back all the time and Del, the head cook, would make me ice cream sundaes. My dad would catch us and say, `Del, you leave that boy alone!' When I was in college, I was studying hotel and restaurant management, and I was going to take over running the place for him until he decided to sell it. I told him, `Dad, what do you think I'm going to school for?' It was a blast, though. The food was always good and the beer was always cold."
These days, you can't even stand in the spot where Unitas shook thousands of hands inside The Golden Arm. There isn't even a front door. Giant, the supermarket chain, bought out the space and expanded. The shopping center is as anonymous, as ubiquitous and as character-free as any in America.
"It makes me a little sad, but mainly because it means I'm getting older," Janice Unitas-DeNittis says. "It just seems like life was so much simpler back then. When I think about all the stuff that's not around anymore, it reminds me of my parents, and that's kind of sad."
The anniversary of Unitas' passing is especially difficult for Unitas' first five children, Janice, John Jr., Bobby, Chris and Kenneth, who lost their mother, Dorothy Jean (Hoelle) Unitas, three months before their father died.
"It was kind of a double whammy for us that year," Janice Unitas-DeNittis says. "There are times I catch myself thinking, `Oh, I've got to call up Mom and tell her this, or talk to Dad about this.' I even pick up the phone sometimes. At times it seems like they've been gone a lot longer than [five years]."
Memorial Stadium has been gone for even longer, its red-brick castle walls having been razed over a 10-month period in 2001, bringing an end to a long, and at times bitter, political fight about the stadium's future. In its place sits the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg YMCA at Stadium Place, the largest YMCA in Maryland. What's left of Memorial Stadium, some 10,000 cubic yards of concrete, sits at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, three miles off Tolchester Beach. Dumping it in the bay is an attempt by the state to build an artificial reef that could, ideally, help replenish the dwindling oyster population.
A person can now stand in the exact spot where Unitas would drop back and spy Raymond Berry streaking up the field, and have no idea he is walking on hallowed ground. There are no signs, nor plaques, commemorating what the Colts or Orioles did here. Just a dirt track, an unused lacrosse goal and a field full of weeds.
But when Berry closes his eyes and tries to picture it from his home in Tennessee, it still seems as if nothing has changed.
"Good grief, I think about every different experience that John and I had," says Berry, who delivered the eulogy at Unitas' funeral. "I remember this one year in Baltimore, we were playing Detroit and I was going up against Dick LeBeau, a veteran cornerback. He just did not get beat deep. Well, the first time we got the ball, I lined up, and as soon as I saw Dick, I knew I could beat him on a fake slant and go."
Berry caught Unitas' eye just before the huddle formed, and whispered the words: "Counter 96 IT."
"We had an arrangement: If I saw something out there, I'd tell him before the huddle, and he could call it if he wanted to," Berry says. "Counter 96 was the pass protection, I was for inside, and T was for takeoff. So he calls it, I go right by Dick, and John hits me in stride for a 63-yard touchdown. We were laughing on the sidelines. There wasn't many long ones like that, but that was one I always remember."
Even though he says he misses Unitas dearly, Berry says he also feels lucky he got the chance to pick Unitas' brain a bit when Sandra and John visited Berry and his wife in Colorado the year before Unitas' death. He had always wondered something about the 1958 NFL championship game, when the Colts beat the New York Giants, 23-17, in sudden-death overtime in what is now widely considered the greatest football game ever played.
"I told him: `That drive that set up the field goal and sent the game into overtime, that was the high point of my career. You threw to me three times in a row. Why in the world did you come to me three times?' " Berry says.
"'Well,'" Berry said Unitas told him, unable to hide a grin, "`I kind of figured you'd catch it.' "
Other questions, many of which didn't pop up until after he died, had to remain unanswered. John Unitas Jr., whose son, John Unitas III, plays quarterback at Villanova, says he thinks daily about the stuff he would like to ask his father, his former business partner. It's questions about tutoring his son, who goes by J.C., to play quarterback; it's questions about business; it's questions about being a father. It's tough, he says.
"I miss being able to talk to him, just to bounce things off of him," says Unitas Jr., who is planning to write a biography of his father this year. "He'd always give me an honest answer. I talked to him two or three times a day, every day. We were very close. I know he'd be very proud of his grandchildren, J.C. and Jillian."
The same feelings exist for Joey Unitas, the oldest of Unitas' three children from his second marriage. The two families are not close - the relationship, at best, can be described as strained - but they share very similar feelings about their father. Both think often about the events he did not live to see, and grandchildren he didn't get to spend enough time with.
"I got married two weeks after he passed away," Joey Unitas says. "And now I have two children. So when I think of it like that, a lot has happened in my life since then. The thing I really think about a lot is how much he would have loved to have seen the kids and to have been a grandfather to them. That's hard."
Even though his father is gone, Unitas' son Bobby says he hasn't quit talking to him. On occasion, he'll make the trek to Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens cemetery, where Unitas' headstone sits beside a pond beneath a grove of trees.
"I do my thing with him," Bobby Unitas says. "He's my father and I respect him a lot. I say a few prayers. I get [ticked] at him, just like when he was alive. I ask him for help, just like when he was alive. He still talks to me."
It's a peaceful site, right on the water because Unitas loved to fish, and when the sun shines orange and the sky is painted Baltimore Colts blue and white, you can catch your reflection, if only briefly, in the murky pond. If you crouch, you can read the inscription on the headstone, which is made from Pittsburgh granite, a nod to Unitas' birthplace.
A common man of uncommon talent and even more uncommon grace.
You can close your eyes and imagine him, right arm cocked, his blue eyes scanning the field, looking barrel-chested and forever young.
kevin.vanvalkenburg @baltsun.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun