At Club 4100, memories

Dino Spanomanolis smoked cigarettes and sipped his coffee yesterday morning at Club 4100, the restaurant in Brooklyn Park he and his brother Manny own, waiting for the tribute to the man who often sat on the stool he now occupied - John Unitas.

When it finally came on the television - just a flash of the old No. 19 jersey and the black high-tops in a glass case on the field at Ravens Stadium - Spanomanolis put his head in his hands and tried not to cry. Somewhere in the decades the Spanomanolises knew John Unitas, he became like a brother.

"Johnny U," Dino Spanomanolis said as old footage of the Golden Arm flickered on the screen. "Ah! My baby."

Club 4100 was mostly empty yesterday afternoon - almost all the regulars were at the Ravens game, just as they were always at Colts games all those years - but the memories of Unitas still flowed as freely as the beer.

For 40 years Unitas was a regular at the bar, tucked in a working-class neighborhood off Ritchie Highway - just one of the guys, everyone said, though they all knew he was something more. He died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 69.

There were the times Unitas showed up at Club 4100 and sneaked around to a swimming pool in the back, avoiding any fans in the front, to spend hours at a summer camp for disabled children - children who didn't know his name.

Then there was the time the legendary Baltimore Colts quarterback returned from a bruising road game, went to the restaurant but declined his usual Greek salad. "After all the dirt I ate today, it would take root," he explained to the owner.

And there were all the Easter Sundays when he would autograph dozens of footballs, then chuck them to the kids as they ran down the street doing their best Raymond Berry impression. Once he even came on crutches, straight out of the hospital.

"The night Johnny died, it was like his funeral home in here," Manny Spanomanolis said. He had already lowered his American flag out front to half-staff for the Sept. 11 anniversary, but he kept it that way all week, waiting for Unitas' funeral.

Besides being a Unitas hangout - the place he and other players would go after Colts games, a favorite spot for a New York strip steak dinner, and where he knew he'd be treated like family, not a star - the cozy Club 4100 is also a Unitas shrine.

The wood-paneled walls are thick with Unitas photos, many of them autographed, some of them sepia-toned and from his private collection. There's his class picture from St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh. Unitas is standing in the back row, wearing a crew cut and a tie, hands clasped behind his back. He is not the biggest or tallest guy in the class, not even close.

"He'd come in, and everybody would say, 'Hey, Johnny!' He'd walk around the bar, talk to a few people, and no one ever bothered him," Tom Ziegler recalled the other day. Ziegler, 60, lived down the street from the bar for decades before moving recently to Ferndale. "He was a guy who came up the hard way and never forgot it."

Ziegler was in the bar earlier this year when Unitas stopped by. Someone remarked on the sky-high salaries football players get paid these days and asked Unitas what he would be making if he played today.

"He said, 'Oh, maybe $200,000 or $300,000,'" Ziegler recalled.

And someone said, "But John, these guys are making $10 million! You'd do better than that."

"Yes," Unitas replied, "but I'm 69 years old."

Unitas' association with Club 4100, which occupies the lower level of a house, began when it opened in 1959. Then-owner George Coutros was godfather to Unitas' son Joe, and he asked Unitas to stop by for a charity event. He never stopped coming.

During the summers, he would be there at least once a week to spend time with kids in the summer camp. During the autumns, he would come by after Colts road games. The place isn't too far from what was then called Friendship Airport, and one of the air traffic controllers would call the Club 4100 owners when the Colts' plane was on its way, and they'd throw some steaks on the grill.

Once, after a West Coast game, about 20 Colts arrived and started eating and drinking. The hours wore on, and a neighbor called the police to say the bar was serving alcohol after the 2 a.m. cutoff time. Anne Arundel County police showed up and asked Manny Spanomanolis if he was serving beer.

"Yes, I am, officer," he said, and stepped aside to let the cops in. "They walked in and could not believe what they saw. ... They stayed till 5:30 a.m. to get autographs."

But mostly, people at Club 4100 remembered Unitas for all those Easter Sundays. Practically every year for four decades, he spent the day at the restaurant, signing autographs and tossing balls. More than 1,000 kids would come.

"He loved kids," said Manny Spanomanolis, who bought the restaurant at 4118 Fourth St. with Dino in 1969. "He was like a brother to us. We didn't shake hands. We hugged."

Outside the restaurant, beside a rosebush, is a chunk of the original sidewalk, with a faded imprint of Unitas' right hand. It's been there so long the print is hardly visible, but you can still make out the fingertips that set sail to touchdown passes in 47 straight games.

Manny Spanomanolis put his hand over Unitas' imprint Friday afternoon and shook his head. "There aren't enough words we can produce to make sense of it," he said.

The last time Manny Spanomanolis saw Unitas was in early June, when he came in for dinner by himself. He signed a few autographs, gracious as ever, and ordered a steak and salad.

"He said to tell everybody hello," the owner said. "He loved everybody."