Old Colts fan savors Unitas-to-Berry duo at academic banquet

Sun Columnist

Growing up in the Baltimore suburbs was an occasion for Michael Flanaganto watch John Unitas from a seat in the stands and applaud his achievements.

He finally met him, via a rather circuitous route, having to go toIndianapolis from his office in Dallas for a banquet in the city that usurpedthe Colts and deprived Baltimore of a prideful birthright.

Unitas was in Indianapolis to present a former teammate, Raymond Berry, atthe GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame ceremonies. Flanagan is mediarelations manager for the organization and the occasion afforded anopportunity to be with boyhood heroes.

For the first time in the history of the award, which has been held in thepast at such divergent venues as Los Angeles, Tampa, Dallas, New York andDurham, N.C., a presenter, Unitas, received more applause than Berry or any ofthe other recipients, including Dave Casper, Jim Grabowski and KermitWashington.

"It was an astonishing experience," reported Flanagan. "Seven hundredguests in the ballroom came to their feet when Unitas was introduced by masterof ceremonies Dick Enberg, who never once mentioned the emergency heartsurgery John hTC underwent in February. A lot of people in the room didn'tknow it; they just knew the kind of quarterback he was."

Mmeanwhile, at the same function, the owner of the Colts, Robert Irsay,was asked to stand and be recognized. Out of curiosity, it's pertinent towonder the type reaction he received in the city where he moved the Colts in1984.

"It was lukewarm at best," answered Flanagan.

Before the dinner began, Unitas was interviewed by an Indianapolistelevision station. With Flanagan standing nearby, here's what he heard Unitassay for the viewers in Indianapolis: "It's a shame Baltimore had to lose theteam, but at least it was one way to rid Baltimore of Bob Irsay."

That's Unitas -- candid, appropriate. It wouldn't be any part of theUnitas personna to be in Indianapolis and offer its citizens a politicalstatement.

As for what Unitas had to say to the audience about his years with Berry,he went the whimsical route: "I want to thank Raymond for asking me here.Maybe it's because he knows this is the closest I'm ever going to get to anacademic program. When I graduated from the University of Louisville, theyretired my grades. . . not my jersey."

Berry, pleased that Unitas and his wife, Sandra, made the trip, was humblein his acceptance. "I want you to know I would only have been half thereceiver I was if it hadn't been for John Unitas," he said.

Flanagan, once the publicity director for the Baltimore Eagles when theywere national semi-pro football champions and then a sportswriter for the St.Petersburg (Fla.) Times, is conversant with Unitas' career. He asked Unitas ifit was true that only he, Jim Brown and Gale Sayers had won the Most ValuablePlayer Award in the Pro Bowl three times.

"Guess what he told me?" asked Flanagan. "He looked at me and said, 'Icare more about kids and animals than that kind of stuff.' His wife mentionedabout the same thing to me in a later conversation. From talking to him, it'sobvious he remembers games and situations a lot more vividly than personalthings he was able to do."

Flanagan enjoyed hearing Unitas relate a Berry anecdote. The Colts werepounding the Washington Redskins, which in that day was not unusual. Coach Weeb Ewbank sent in a pass play he wanted used against a Redskins defensiveback. Unitas called it but Berry objected.

Later on the sidelines, Ewbank wanted to know why the order was rejected.

"Because," Unitas answered, "Raymond didn't want to because we hadn'tpracticed it."

The coach changed demeanor and said, "Well, OK, then."

It was symbolic of the universal respect held for Berry.

Mike Flanagan said it was a memorable event to be at the same functionwith Unitas and Berry. "They represent a great part of my life in Baltimore,"he said. "To meet them and see the kind of men they are meant more than I cantell you."

From Dallas to Indianapolis to see two Hall of Fame players, bothBaltimore Colts, in the city where the same franchise now holds forth. It wasgratifying for Flanagan and makes for a special page in any album of memories.

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