Awe-struck schoolboy Dick Jerardi Jerardi has worked a thousand locker rooms and big events as a sports reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Four decades ago, when he was in the seventh or eighth grade at Cathedral School, he still placed his sporting heroes on a pedestal, and he had a difficult time comprehending the driver who pulled over as he hitch-hiked his way north on Charles Street.
"In my memory, a blue Lincoln pulled over," Jerardi said. "Everything's bigger when you're a kid, but it definitely was not a compact. The driver motioned me into the car, and I looked in and said to myself, 'That's Johnny Unitas.' He gave me a pleasant smile, and I was too stunned to speak. He knew that I knew who he was, and he knew I was petrified. He humored me for a few miles, until I had the presence of mind to ask him to let me off near my neighborhood. I ran home and told my brothers about it, but I'm not sure any of them believed me."
Chronicler Cameron C. Snyder Snyder, 86, first covered pro football for The Sun in 1950 and reported on Unitas' entire career in Baltimore. On the beat in 1956, he eyed a skinny quarterback prospect and thought, "No wonder Pittsburgh got rid of him." Just as modern newspapermen waited for comment from Cal Ripken Jr., Unitas unwound with some of the longest showers in the business. After one game Snyder got impatient, went searching and found Unitas under a shower head, being interviewed by John Steadman of the rival News-Post.
Nervous pupil Eddie Hinton The recipient of the last touchdown pass thrown by Unitas in Baltimore, Hinton doesn't consider their most vivid connection to be the simple crossing pattern that he converted into a 63-yard score on Dec. 3, 1972.
Hinton had been a star back at Oklahoma and had a rocky adjustment to wide receiver. The Colts won Super Bowl V in his second season with them, in 1970, but it was a trying year for Unitas. Three days after Thanksgiving, he rallied the Colts from a 17-0 deficit for a 21-20 win over Chicago despite five interceptions and a jittery Hinton, who had two drops on the Colts' second touchdown drive.
"John was always Mr. Unitas to me," said Hinton, who named his Texas real estate company Colts Development. "In that drive, John threw a perfect pass, and I dropped it between my legs. He called the same play, a 15-yard curl, and I dropped another perfect pass. On fourth down, he waves off the field-goal unit. He calls my number, and I made a one-handed catch on the sideline for a first down at the Bears' 7. We score, and I am emotionally distraught. I said, 'Mr. Unitas, why did you go to me a third time?' He said, 'Because I knew you were going to catch the damned ball.' "
Unlikely guest Craig Kelley Unitas scorned the Indianapolis Colts but had a soft spot for an employee of the Irsays. As a boy in New Orleans, Kelley idolized Unitas from the day his father brought home his autographed photo. The adulation grew as Kelley became a sports publicist, for none other than Indianapolis. When Unitas appeared at a 1997 fund-raiser in Richmond, Ind., Kelley offered to take him to the airport in Dayton, Ohio, 65 miles away.
"I told him my name, what I did, and he was fabulous company," Kelley said. "The hour trip went by in four minutes. A year later, the Colts played the Ravens in Baltimore. I was the advance man, and checked into my hotel in the Inner Harbor late Wednesday night. I called John and asked if we could arrange to meet for lunch that Friday. He said, 'Why don't you just come out to the house tomorrow?' He meant Thanksgiving dinner with his family.
"He gave me directions to the house in Baldwin. I couldn't sleep, so I drove the route at 4 a.m. to make sure I wouldn't get lost, then went back to the hotel. He was smoking a turkey when I arrived. He asked if I wanted to see his memento room. Two hours later I walked out and said, 'Wow.' "
Unitas expert Terry Musolf Musolf grew up in Green Bay Packers country and still makes his home in Madison, Wis., but he is the authority on Unitas' legacy. His research and record-keeping has corrected statistical errors that had been perpetuated by the Colts and the NFL. His hobby began in 1957, when he was 11 and became mesmerized by a Colts-Packers game on his uncle's television.
"I've always been fascinated my mathematics, and I began to chart games, still do," Musolf said. "I subscribed to The News American for six months a year from 1961 to '83, got it in the mail three days late. I started writing to the Colts in 1959.
"I can't stand it when a number is wrong, and I would double- and triple-check their media guide every year. I was on the phone in 1961 with Herb Wright, the PR director, discussing a stat that I felt was incorrect. He asked if I would like to talk to John, and passed the phone to him. I couldn't speak for two minutes. Finally, I told him he was the greatest football player ever. He laughed and said, 'I haven't played long enough.' "
Man about town Willie Metzger A native son of Baltimore, Metzger tended bar in the 1960s, when pro football players still took offseason jobs and assorted Colts stopped by Gussie's Downbeat on Eastern Avenue on their way home from Sparrows Point. Metzger later became a whiskey salesman and became more than an acquaintance of Unitas' when the quarterback was between marriages.
"Me and John and Rocky Thornton, who worked for him at the Golden Arm, palled around together," Metzger said. "I took him to meet my father at the Eaton Cafe in Highlandtown. Dad was senile. John was on crutches after his Achilles' tendon operation, and Dad asked, 'What did you do, boy, hurt your foot?' The reason John liked me is that I wasn't a football nut. We were in the bar at Vellegia's in Towson once, and this fan drove him crazy, talking about how tough it was to play football, and what a tough guy he must have been. John leaned over and kissed me on the cheek, and the guy walked away."
Football widow Carol Hale In the 1950s, Sundays on Drexel Road in Dundalk revolved around the gospel according to John the quarterback. Women were not allowed in the family room during Colts telecasts. Carol Hale's husband, Edwin Hale Sr., was the only guy in the neighborhood who had a station wagon, so he chauffeured Ed Magaliski, Bud Kues and the gang to Memorial Stadium.
Since he was at Yankee Stadium for "The Greatest Game Ever Played" in 1958, Hale wasn't going to let family matters keep him from the Colts' title game repeat in Baltimore on Dec. 27, 1959.
"We went to his mother's in Massachusetts for Christmas," Carol said, "then he finagled some way of getting out of taking us back home. Here I am in Lynn, Mass., snowed in with five kids and my mother-in-law. Ed had been in the Navy. He picked up a sailor hitch-hiking on the Mass Turnpike and took him all the way to Baltimore, but there was no room for his kids. He went to work for BG&E on Monday, and my mother-in-law drove me and the kids home."
Carol Hale, whose son Edwin Jr. owns Baltimore's indoor soccer team, lost her husband to a stroke in March. She now looks back fondly on those days in 1959.
"I was so hot under the collar," she said, "but as much as I think of Ed now, I'm glad he had that entertainment."
Guardian Dan Sullivan Unitas ruled the huddle but offered all an audience. Receivers were ordered to speak up if they spotted a flaw in the secondary, and linemen were encouraged to supply suggestions. Dan Sullivan, who played 11 seasons for the Colts and started on the right side from 1967 to '72, had to alter his opinion one afternoon against the Dallas Cowboys, when his signal-caller rolled with the flow.
"John would ask if anyone needed any help," Sullivan said. "My nemesis was Jethro Pugh, who was tall, rangy and gave me all sorts of problems. In one of our games, I came out aggressive and was doing real well against him. [Left guard] Glenn Ressler was matched up against Bob Lilly, and you need help against him any day, which we tried to give. "Two series later, Pugh got by me and leveled John a couple of times. He said, 'Can't you block this guy?' He called a sucker play, what you would call a counter today. I pulled left, Jethro followed me and Glenn came over and cleaned his clock. When you least expected a play, John would call it."
Misplaced fan Greg Cochran Cochran grew up in Six Mile, S.C., where the sporting passions typically center on Clemson University and the Atlanta pro teams. He has been a minister at Woodbrook Baptist Church in Towson since 1988, and it's no surprise that he found a home inside the Beltway, since he showed an early affinity for Baltimore.
"My brother and I collected cards like all kids, and I always tried to get the Orioles and Colts," Cochran said. "I got a No. 19 Colts jersey at Sam Wyche's sporting goods store in Seneca. We lived in a small town, and our midget football team didn't really issue equipment. My dad was an engineer and moonlighted on the side as a sign-painter. He took my white helmet and painted blue horseshoes on it. This was about 1970 or '71.
"I don't have the helmet anymore, and I wish I had held on to it. I saw John Unitas one time, at a restaurant on York Road. He came in to eat as we were leaving. I was either too scared to approach him or didn't want to bother him."
Surprised coach Dave Dolch Dolch's last season as the quarterback at Northeast High was 1972, Unitas' final year in Baltimore. A decade later, his coaching career got a boost from Unitas, whom Dolch had met through Jim Hindman, his coach and mentor at Western Maryland College. This year, their paths crossed one more time as Dolch prepared for his newest assignment, as the varsity coach at St. Paul's.
"In 1982, John and Morgan State coach Clarence Thomas came to Queen Anne's High on the Eastern Shore and spent an entire day with our football team, a fantastic gesture that the people there still remember," Dolch said. "This summer, I was pulled out of a classroom and handed a phone. The man on the other end said, 'My father said my son needs to play for you.' I had no idea who it was. It was John Unitas Jr. The oldest grandchild, John Constantine Unitas III, is one of the quarterbacks on our JV."
Perplexed wife and son Barbara and Bill Emrich As Barbara Emrich prepared shrimp creole for Sunday dinner at her home in Arnold on Dec. 28, 1958, she tried to keep her husband happy, but William S. Emrich got mad every time she tried to freshen his drink or fill the snack bowl.
Said her son, Bill Emrich: "I was 9 years old, watching the '58 championship game against the Giants with my father as he went crazy. He noticed that every time my mother ventured downstairs, something would go wrong for the Colts, and every time she went back to the kitchen, they would score or go downfield. My mother never saw the end of the game and sat at the top of the stairs, even through overtime. A few years later, Eddie Graefe, the pro at her golf club, told her not leave after her round. John Unitas was going to be playing there that afternoon. She met him and followed his foursome around the course."
Hall of Famer Lem Barney There were no black quarterbacks in the NFL in the early 1960s, when one of the best athletes in Gulfport, Miss., wanted to grow up and become John Unitas. Barney was moved to the secondary when he played at Jackson State, and he crossed paths with one of his heroes in November 1967, when the rookie and the rest of the Detroit Lions were whipped, 41-7, at blustery Memorial Stadium.
Barney had quickly stamped himself as one of the most versatile players in pro football. He returned a Lou Michaels field-goal try deep into Colts territory, but one of his own punts traveled 18 yards into a gale-force wind. Barney notched 10 of his 56 interceptions that season, but only Dick LeBeau picked off Unitas that day. The Colts moved the ball on the ground, and Barney didn't allow fellow Jackson State alum Willie Richardson a touchdown pass Ñ until after Unitas exited and reserve Jim Ward beat him.
"You prepared for John as best you could," Barney said. "He was the man, a great icon to everyone, including African-American kids."
Busy mother Claudia Grimm Molly Grimm is a senior at Garrison Forest School. She doesn't remember being in the hands of Baltimore's most famous baby sitter in the mid-1980s, but her mother, Claudia, does.
"My son Russ and John's son Chad were born the same year," Claudia Grimm said. "I came to know John's wife, Sandy, out at Hillendale Country Club, where we would sit around the baby pool and watch the boys. When I was pregnant with Molly, I asked John and Sandy to be the godparents. Molly was three weeks old when Sandy said I needed a break and offered to watch her.
"I was gone for five hours, and when I returned home, John was sitting in the den, with Molly in his arms. I asked about Sandy, and he said something had come up. I must have had a look on my face, because he said, 'You think I can't handle a baby?' He had given her a bottle, changed her diaper, played with her. Yes, John was a man's man, but there was a softer side to him. There was never a time when he didn't have time for children."
Fellow patient Rick McDonald Knee problems kept McDonald from playing football for Woodlawn High, and he finally required surgery when his mobility decreased as he limped toward his 40s. In February 1997, therapy took him to Kernan Hospital, where he found it hard to fathom the guy who chatted him up as he prepared to sweat at the exercise bike and other stations.
"I walked into the locker room, and there sat Johnny Unitas," McDonald said. "After I had changed, he came over and asked what had happened to my knee, and what exercises they had me doing. My sessions would last from an hour to 90 minutes, and the entire time, Mr. Unitas followed me from station to station. This happened on three occasions, and we talked like old friends.
"My only regret is that I didn't get his autograph. My girlfriend asked me why I didn't, and I explained that it would not have felt right."
Fortunate son Jeff Charlebois Charlebois graduated from Calvert Hall in 1981, but not without a struggle. When he was a junior, an auto accident broke his neck and paralyzed him from the chest down. Paul, his father, was a racquetball partner and friend of Unitas', a relationship that Jeff counts as a blessing.
"He was instrumental in getting me into a ground-breaking rehabilitation program in Ohio," Charlebois said. "If I didn't know John, that wouldn't have happened. As a young kid, I listened to stories from my father and the Colts about the guts and determination of this skinny guy from Louisville. John showed me certain exercises to build up my triceps. One of the things that helped me get through my accident was how brave he was coming back from all of his injuries. In the back of my mind, that's one of the things that helped me get through mine."
A comedian and writer, Charlebois recently married and makes his home in Monrovia, Calif.
Rival and friend Sam Huff One of the finest linebackers of his day, Huff broke into the NFL in 1956, the same year as Unitas, but seldom got the best of his contemporary. He starred for the Giants when they dropped the 1958 and '59 title games to the Colts, and he finished his career with Washington when there was a huge gulf between the Colts and Redskins.
"The Giants played the Colts in an exhibition in '56," Huff said. "Some of our guys said, 'We're lucky we didn't have to play George Shaw,' but I said, 'That UNI-tas guy is pretty good.' I intercepted a Unitas pass once, the only game we [the Giants] ever beat them at Memorial Stadium [in 1963]. That was a classic nobody remembers. One day at RFK, he beat nine straight defenses that I called.
"As I was leaving the house for one Colts game, my ex-wife said, 'I don't care what you do, but don't hit John.' I made friends with all the quarterbacks I used to chase, hit them hard, and they played hard against me. I was with John at a charity event over the summer and saw what a struggle it was for him to hold a pen to sign autographs. I called him the Friday before he died, just to see how he was doing."
Target Jimmy Orr Baltimore has neighborhoods that aren't marked on the map, like Greektown. Locals know where to find them, and any Colts fans in the mid-1960s could locate Orrsville. Before cookie-cutter stadiums came into vogue, each NFL stadium had its quirks. Savvy visitors to San Francisco's Kezar Stadium inspected for soggy spots. At Memorial Stadium, defensive backs loathed a Unitas pass into the right side of the closed end, where Orr, 5 feet 11, 185 pounds, found the claustrophobic quarters near the Orioles dugout to his liking.
"If you laid down in the middle of the field, it looked like it sloped a couple of yards downhill to that corner," Orr said. "I swear, that made me run faster. On Thursdays, we would practice at the stadium without the defense, and John and I would get our timing down. It was scary in that corner, tight. You go into a place where there are walls and people, subconsciously, that affects you, especially if you're a defensive back. We would go sliding into that baseball warning track, and I had a couple of cinders in my arm for a long time."
Neighborhood celebrity Larry Semerad Semerad was stricken as a child by Perthes Disease, which limits circulation in the hip socket. He was 7 and wheelchair-bound in April 1959, when the quarterback of the world champions knocked on his door. Unitas asked, "Is Larry in?" and Semerad's incredulous father said, "Who should I say is calling?" Unitas spent an hour at the Semerad home, which soon was overrun by neighborhood children.
"I was selected the Maryland Easter Seal poster boy in 1960, and John happened to be the honorary chairman," Semerad said. "I was on crutches, and we threw a ball back and forth. I could kick it with one leg, and that's something I didn't forget. John didn't just visit me. He visited many kids. The impressions you get at a young age are hard to forget, for good or bad. The recipients of his kindness have gone on to reciprocate the rest of humanity."
Semerad, Archbishop Curley class of 1969, is something of a Renaissance man. He turned his energy to music and became proficient as a pianist, then became well enough to play sports. He was a nationally ranked featherweight boxer as a student at Notre Dame, and works as a massage therapist in Destin, Fla.
Nearby admirer Kurt L. Schmoke Once there were two potent football powers on 33rd Street. Across from Memorial Stadium, Kurt Schmoke polished his leadership skills by quarterbacking City College to unbeaten prep seasons in 1965 and '66. He went on to Yale and then a Rhodes Scholarship, returned home and was mayor of Baltimore in 1991, when the final Orioles game at Memorial Stadium reunited him with one of his role models.
"George Young, my high school coach, was able to negotiate us using the whirlpool in the Colts' locker room," said Schmoke, the newly named dean of the Howard University School of Law. "I had an injury and walked across the street for treatment once. I used to get tickets in the cheap seats and watch John's every move. I met him several times and shook his hand like everyone else.
"When the Orioles played their last game at Memorial Stadium, John and Brooks Robinson threw out the final 'first pitch.' Cal Ripken Jr. caught Brooks. We didn't have a pro football team then, and John threw the football to me. It was hard, because except for the president of the United States, politicians should not be allowed on the field. I didn't belong with those three guys, but it's my fondest adult memory of John Unitas."