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His words, feats are as vivid as ever

FootballBaltimore ColtsNew York GiantsNFLRaymond BerryJohnny Unitas

Orioles great Brooks Robinson, who played third base in Baltimore from 1955 to 1977, said last night that John Unitas took himself and the game in stride.

"He was simply the most unassuming guy I knew, and he had every right to be big-headed. If he played today, he'd be even greater because quarterbacks don't take the beating today that he took. I mean they beat him to death. I used to sit up in the stands on the third base side for football games and watched what he could do with a football.

"He was cool under pressure, never changed his demeanor, and had the rest of the team totally believing in him. When you have that kind of respect, guys will do anything for you."

Robinson also said that the era in which he and Unitas played was unique.

"There will never be another era like ours simply because we were everywhere in Baltimore all the time. One night we were in Dundalk, the next in Reisterstown or anywhere else. John and I were together 16 or 17 times a year."

Up in the air

Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, whose Washington Redskins teams competed against John Unitas and his Colts between 1964 and 1972, said he remembered standing with Unitas on a balcony of a fifth-floor hotel in Hawaii as part of a quarterbacks trip.

Below them, the Houston Oilers' Dan Pastorini was tossing around a football with another quarterback.

When Pastorini saw the two men standing on the balcony, he began firing the ball in their direction, nearly hitting the balcony with every throw.

"I said, 'I can't believe the strength in this kid's arm. Can you, John?' " Jurgensen said. "John said, 'No, but his receivers are on the third floor.' "

Donovan: 'He showed us'

Art Donovan, who played with Unitas from 1956 to 1962, remembered the first time he saw his teammate.

Donovan was getting his feet massaged on the trainer's table, while Unitas was fitted with an ice pack to relieve bursitis in his right shoulder.

"He was always on the training table," Donovan said. "We were saying, 'He's our quarterback? How can he make the team if he can't throw the ball?' He showed us."

Berry: Mental toughness

Like Unitas, Raymond Berry entered the NFL in 1955, but their paths didn't cross until Unitas was signed by the Colts as a free agent in 1956.

Berry, who had been on the cusp of being released by the Colts, was too involved in the playbook to study Unitas, but got a glimpse into the quarterback's character when his first completed pass was an interception returned for a touchdown by Chicago Bears defensive back J.C. Caroline in 1956.

"His reaction to that could've told you a lot about him," Berry recalled. "You could hit him with a two-by-four, and he'd still go about his business."

On 'greatest game'

At Yankee Stadium on Wednesday night, Bob Sheppard, the voice of the New York Yankees and Giants, recalled Unitas and "The Greatest Game Ever Played" as if it were yesterday.

"I was right here in this ballpark, and he killed me," Sheppard said of the 1958 NFL championship game between the Colts and the Giants.

"We had the game wrapped up when the Colts got the ball on about the 20-yard line and a couple of minutes to go. The Giants were a very strong defensive team, but that Unitas - he just started the ball rolling.

"Over and over and over again, I kept announcing, 'Unitas to Berry. Unitas to Berry. Unitas to Berry,' all the way down the field," Sheppard said.

"I wanted to scream into the microphone, 'Please, someone cover Raymond Berry!' But they went 70 yards and, with a few seconds left, they brought out a guy named Steve Myhra.

"I had never heard of him before. None of the Giants fans had ever heard of him before. But bingo, the kid hits the field goal and gets the three points to tie the game.

"Then in overtime, the Colts kicked off to the Giants. We went nowhere.

"Then the Colts got the ball again and, like an Army tank, Johnny Unitas just rolled them down the field until they got inside the 10 and Alan Ameche took over. End of game.

"Oh, that Unitas!"

Off to San Diego

Former Evening Sun sportswriter Larry Harris, who covered the Colts between 1967 and 1976, said he was the first to inform Unitas that he had been sold by the Colts to the San Diego Chargers in January 1973.

Unitas showed little emotion; he simply took the next plane to San Diego, Harris said.

That type of reaction was normal from Unitas. "You had to know the real Unitas to reach that point," Harris said. "He was John Wayne personified."

Painting a scene

Ronnie Finn, 56, a professional house painter from Pikesville, recalled the first time he entered Unitas' farm home, "Passing Fancy," in Baldwin in November 1987, where he spent a month painting the house.

"He was on his way out the door the first day I arrived, and we shook hands," Finn said. "He had a strong grip, and while I was there he and his wife made me feel like part of the family."

Finn said that as he set up his painting supplies in the basement, he looked around and noticed most of the room was full of pro football trophies, many of them lying on the floor or on a pingpong table.

Finn said he once tried on Unitas' Colts helmet. "I couldn't believe that I was actually wearing Johnny U.'s helmet right there in his house," he said.

Manning: He liked me

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning said he first met Unitas when he won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as a senior at Tennessee.

The two spoke again when the Colts twice played in Baltimore and again at a couple of Kentucky derbies.

While Unitas' relationship with the Colts disintegrated, Manning said that wasn't the case between two of the Colts' best-ever quarterbacks.

"He kind of told me, not in so many words, that he didn't like the [Indianapolis] Colts, but that he liked me," Manning said, drawing laughter from reporters.

Sun staff writers Bill Free, Richard Irwin, Edward Lee and Laura Vecsey and the Associated Press and Daily Press of Newport News, Va., contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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FootballBaltimore ColtsNew York GiantsNFLRaymond BerryJohnny Unitas
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