John Unitas signs autographs for fans in 1960

John Unitas makes time for autographs for some young fans in 1960. He continued to sign them in his later years when holding a pen was difficult due to nerve damage from his playing days. (Sun file photo)

The first words I remember are "Get the baby out from in front of the TV." I was 3 years old when the Baltimore Colts beat the New York Giants in the 1958 NFL championship game, so it's a safe bet that my father wanted an unobstructed view of the man who was known as Johnny U. by most, the "Master" by insiders and "Mister Unitas" by referees.

Baltimore's baby boomers were reared on two athletic heroes, and both were identifiable by a single name. Brooks sounded as exotic as Ali or Pele, compared with plain, simple John, who was all substance and no style, unless you considered black high-top cleats and a flat-top cutting edge.

If ever an athletic star symbolized an American town, it was John Unitas.

He ruled Baltimore before there was a Harborplace and service economies, when men made a living with their hands doing hard, sweaty jobs. He hailed from Pittsburgh, Steeltown USA, and came to Baltimore when tens of thousands still worked at the Bethlehem Steel plant in Sparrows Point. They worked until it ached, and he played hurt. Unitas was signed as a castoff free agent, and that was perfect too, because Baltimore had an inferiority complex.

It doesn't seem a coincidence that John Unitas died the same year Memorial Stadium's facade was leveled.

As honored and as honorable a man as Brooks Robinson is, in the 1960s there was no doubt which Hall of Famer-to-be and which sport ruled Memorial Stadium. While the Orioles were a pastime that struggled to draw 1 million fans a season despite some of the best teams in the majors, the Colts were a passion and Unitas always kept his cool inside what was dubbed "The World's Largest Outdoor Insane Asylum."

Unitas wasn't the star of the Colts' last home game in 1964, the first I attended. He sent Lenny Moore behind Jim Parker about 20 times, and the halfback set an NFL record for touchdowns in a season as Baltimore pounded the hapless Washington Redskins.

That season ended in crisis, as the Colts were inexplicably routed by Art Modell's Cleveland Browns in the NFL title game. The same in 1965, when Unitas' magic couldn't overcome the Green Bay Packers' dynasty. In 1966, when the Orioles made the World Series, they played the Dodgers on a Sunday afternoon, but our TV remained glued to the Colts' game against the Bears at Wrigley Field.

My late parents ran their household the way Unitas ran a huddle - stern and without dissent.

When America began to let its hair down in the late 1960s, Unitas grew his just long enough for a comb-over. He still looked square compared with Joe Namath, the antihero who led the Jets to an upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III in 1969. Before John Elway was born, Unitas had mastered the two-minute drill, but he was coming off an injury and the bench, and could not rescue Baltimore at the Orange Bowl on that nauseating, epochal day.

When Carroll Rosenbloom and Robert Irsay conspired during pro football's merger to shift the franchise from the NFL to the AFC, old-guard fans like my father stopped going to Memorial Stadium. They wanted Lions and Bears, not Bengals and Patriots. That meant more tickets for teens like me, who enjoyed Unitas in his twilight.

ESPN Classic links Namath and Unitas to Super Bowl III, and forgets the show that they put on in Baltimore 30 years ago this month. The brash Jet threw for 496 yards, the hobbled Unitas 376, and New York won, 44-34. It was as wild a game as I have ever witnessed.

Within weeks, general manager Joe Thomas had Unitas benched, but there was one last hurrah. In the last game of the 1972 season at Memorial Stadium, below a plane pulling a banner that read "Unitas We Stand!" he was sent in to mop up in a rout of Buffalo. Unitas tossed a sideline pass to Eddie Hinton, who turned it into an inspired 63-yard catch and run to a touchdown.

The place rattled like it did in the old days. It was John Wayne walking off into the sunset. A month later, Unitas was traded to the San Diego Chargers. The Colts drafted Bert Jones, but football in Baltimore - Super Bowl XXXV and all - was never the same.

Unitas did not suffer fools gladly, and I experienced that firsthand a few years ago, when I was asked to get his comment about Irsay's passing off Baltimore's football history as Indianapolis'. Awestruck by the voice on the other end of the phone, I didn't word the question the right way, and he grumbled something like "You'll have to ask Mr. Irsay about that."

The death of Ted Williams revisited the argument about the greatest feat in American sports history, his .406 batting average in 1941 or Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak the same year. Web sites conducted polls about the matter, but unmentioned was another achievement that will never be matched.

Unitas threw a touchdown pass in 47 straight games. Some of them were 12-game seasons. That is no off-days in four seasons, no secondary schemes that he couldn't solve.

47. What a number.

Not as memorable as 19.