By Jon Morgan
September 18, 2002
Cardinal William H. Keeler said he found "sanctity" in the man who threw footballs as if they were missiles but never lost his human touch.
"He was the kind of man who would shake the hand of a homeless person and say to that person it was an honor to shake his hand," said Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, who celebrated the funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore.
Unitas, who led the Baltimore Colts to three championships in the 1958, 1959 and 1970 seasons, died Sept. 11 of a heart attack at 69.
Nearly 2,000 mourners, some of whom lined up hours before the 9:15 a.m. start of services, filled the Gothic cathedral, with its soaring, 90-foot-high ceiling.
Former Colts such as Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti filled the upper sanctuary. Unitas' wife, Sandra, other family members, the mayor and many VIPs sat in the front rows of the main seating area.
White mums and lilies, tied with blue ribbon, decorated the sanctuary, along with an oil painting of the player. The painting showed No. 19 from the rear, standing in his blue-and-white Colts uniform against a black background.
A tolling of church bells and a mournful bagpipe at 9:10 a.m. announced the arrival of Unitas' casket. Covered in flowers, it was borne by his six sons and trailed by his two daughters. Sunlight filtered through red, yellow and blue stained-glass windows, faintly lighting the gray limestone of the cathedral's grand interior.
One eulogy was delivered by Frank Gitschier, the man who, as an assistant football coach at the University of Louisville, recruited the player who would go on to be the school's most famous athlete. He recalled visiting a young Unitas at his home in Pittsburgh, where his widowed mother was raising four children and running the family's coal-delivery business.
"I made two promises to his mother: that he would attend Mass on Sunday and that he would graduate," said Gitschier, who, in 1979, delivered Unitas' introduction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
An unlikely prospect, Unitas at 6 feet tall, 138 pounds, was small for football, but he compensated with an incomparable toughness and a dedication to hard work, Gitschier said.
Unitas retired in 1974 after 17 seasons with the Colts and one with the San Diego Chargers. He played in 10 Pro Bowls and became the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards. Unitas left the game with 22 NFL records, including 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, most completed passes (2,830) and most touchdown passes (290).
Later, he remained unflaggingly supportive when his children took disparate career paths: police officer, actor, businessman, mechanic.
The aspiring actor, Joseph, said in his eulogy that his father's famous bluntness wasn't limited to the huddle. When he recently shared with his father a script he had written, the assessment was harsh. "He said it was crap. He said for me to write something better because I could," Joseph said.
"I hope you like this better, Dad. I love you and will miss you forever," he said, drawing applause and tears.
Three other children also spoke, delivering eulogies or reading from the Bible: Kenneth, John Jr. and Paige.
Speaker after speaker swapped Unitas stories like cherished trading cards. Raymond Berry, a wide receiver who combined with Unitas to form one of football's most productive scoring units, remembered a team leader who took punishing blows from opposing players but kept playing.
"You elevated all of us to unreachable levels, whether on the field or in the stands. You made the impossible possible," Berry said.
Those knees served Unitas on the field as well as in his faith, when he knelt in prayer, the cardinal said.
"He humbly and generously dealt with everyone, whether a grandson trying to learn football or an autograph seeker catching him by surprise," Keeler said.
As the casket was carried out of the cathedral and loaded into the hearse, a small plane flew overhead towing a banner with a message familiar to fans of the Colts' glory years at Memorial Stadium: "Unitas We Stand."
The casket was closed throughout the service, and the body will be cremated.
A roster of great athletes turned out for the service, from retired Orioles third baseman Brooks Robinson to current Ravens Ray Lewis, Chris Redman, Michael McCrary and Peter Boulware. Many of Unitas' Colts teammates were also there, including names instantly recognizable to an entire generation of Baltimoreans: Marchetti, Donovan, Jim Parker, Jimmy Orr, John Mackey and Tom Matte.
"I was standing there and watching my heroes with the Baltimore Colts come up with tears in their eyes," said John Ziemann, the director of the marching band that served the Baltimore Colts and now the Ravens.
"I thought I would never see that. It's the first time I ever saw tears in the eyes of Baltimore Colts," he said.
Maryland men's basketball coach Gary Williams attended. So did Ravens coach Brian Billick, team owner Art Modell, team president David Modell and the Ravens' first coach, Ted Marchibroda.
NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who was a college freshman when Unitas defeated the New York Giants in the storied 1958 championship, came to honor a player who helped popularize the NFL and convince the television networks of the sport's programming potential.
"Unitas epitomized football, the enduring values of toughness and competition, and he epitomized this community and America," Tagliabue said.
Pittsburgh Steelers owner Dan Rooney, whose father, Art Rooney, drafted but cut Unitas in 1955, said, "He was the guy who really brought the game to modern times."
Also in attendance were several of the top political and business leaders of the city and the state, including Mayor Martin O'Malley, Comptroller (and former governor and mayor) William Donald Schaefer, Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. and Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger.
"The great thing about Johnny Unitas? He never passed anybody by. ... He gave the city hope," said Schaefer, who sat next to Robinson during the service. "I guess you could say everybody knew him as a great football player. Today we heard about him as a great father, all the things he did for his family. ... He never passed up a kid for an autograph. ... We'll miss him."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. was there, but Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend, the Democratic nominee, has been in Western Maryland this week and did not attend. Gov. Parris N. Glendening was tending to business in Annapolis and Washington.
Former Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, who is seeking her old seat in Congress this fall, said afterward that the service "couldn't have been more appropriate."
"It reminded us what a real human being Johnny Unitas was," said Bentley.
State schools Superintendent Nancy S. Grasmick and her husband, businessman Louis Grasmick, are longtime Unitas family friends. "We wanted to be with them today," said Nancy Grasmick.
She said the service gave a "great feeling" for the kind of person Unitas was "as a father and a role model for his family."
Louis J. Grasmick said Unitas probably would have reacted to his funeral arrangements with the same words he used when Grasmick put together a tribute after the quarterback retired from football: "Don't make a big deal of it."
Stephen A. Geppi, the comic book mogul and publisher of Baltimore Magazine, said the words of Unitas' son, Joseph, touched him the most. "When you show leadership in the huddle, that's one thing," said Geppi, a minority owner of the Orioles. "To be a leader in your family is to me a greater honor."
Robert Skillman, a 24-year member of the Colts band, was there in full blue-and-white dress, with tassels and cowboy hat.
Scott Akers, an accountant from Arbutus, came to the funeral wearing a blue-and-white button from a long-ago municipal celebration, the May 19, 1973, "Johnny Unitas Day" in Baltimore.
"This day represents a day gone by. We won't see another Johnny Unitas and what he did for football and what he did for this community," he said.
Sun staff writers Eric Siegel, Paul McMullen and M. Dion Thompson contributed to this article.
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