When the Modell family moved its NFL franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore in 1996, it knew a major endorsement from a certain local legend would ensure the new team's acceptance.
The Modells got it from quarterback John Unitas without hesitance.
"His acceptance was probably in the top three individuals or groups that we would have preferred to have accept us and convey that to the public," Ravens president David Modell said.
"He was extremely supportive of this franchise from the beginning and of my family. Obviously, he and [Ravens owner] Art [Modell] knew each other for a long time. We're very appreciative of him being a part of our Ravens family and lending his credibility to us."
Unitas' sudden death yesterday was felt at the Ravens' Owings Mills complex by team officials, coaches and players.
"His presence in Baltimore and in the history of the NFL is unmatched," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "Much of the success the NFL enjoys today can be found in the seeds Johnny planted in the late 1950s and '60s. This is a tremendous loss, especially here in the hometown he adopted and made better with his community efforts. We'll miss him and the support he gave our team."
Unitas was especially supportive of quarterback Chris Redman, who won the national quarterback award named after the Hall of Famer as a senior at Unitas' alma mater, the University of Louisville, in 1999.
"I feel horrible," Redman said. "I'm so close to Johnny and his family. He's had his arm around me since my college days. I give my utmost sympathy to his family. He was such a great person.
"He's one of the main reasons I'm an NFL starting quarterback. He had such an impact on me. I'll miss him so much."
Team officials had planned a tribute to Unitas at halftime of the Jacksonville game Oct. 20. The ceremony will go on, and a statue of Unitas, which will be placed on the north side of Ravens Stadium, will be unveiled.
The Ravens also will pay tribute to Unitas before Sunday's game against Tampa Bay.
"I don't have many heroes," said Ozzie Newsome, senior vice president of football operations. "Plain and simple, Johnny Unitas was one of my heroes. When you think of Baltimore, you think of Johnny Unitas."
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