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THE DECLINE AND FALL OF A CHAMPION Unitas discovers life after football is string of losses

THE BALTIMORE SUN

On a football field, his vision was clear and focused. When he and his teammates were battered, when his protection was collapsing, when time was running out, Johnny Unitas could serenely survey the mayhem, find an opening, and carry the Baltimore Colts to titles and greatness.

But off the field, the man considered the greatest quarterback of his generation was unable to negotiate his way through the tumult of business. Burdened by a 30-year record of bad luck, bad investments and bad planning, No. 19 is now in Chapter 11.

Millions of dollars in debt, Mr. Unitas and his wife, Sandra, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 Feb. 22, seeking financial protection while a court devises a payout plan to their creditors.

Once, thousands of fans beseeched Johnny U. for handshakes and autographs. In the past year, a line of process servers has appeared at his Baldwin doorstep, notifying him that his wages, bank accounts and pension were being frozen by his creditors and that a lien had been placed against his home.

Summing up Mr. Unitas' business career, longtime friend Richard Sammis, a car dealer known as "Mr. Nobody," said: "If you're asking me, it is a disaster. It has never been pretty. It has always been a battle, and maybe John is glad it's over."

Mr. Unitas bought a chain of bowling alleys in the early 1960s, just as America's appetite for bowling dwindled. He bought real estate in Orlando, Fla., when Disney World was blossoming into a national theme park, but the property included swampland and was on the wrong side of town. He opened a restaurant in Towson that closed immediately. He founded an air freight business that was grounded after seven years when $250,000 disappeared.

Along the way, Mr. Unitas bombed as a national football sportscaster, associated himself with a tout sheet that prompted a disapproving National Football League to temporarily sever ties with him, and considered creating a franchise of clothing stores that would blanket the East Coast. It never happened.

Renowned for being tough and stoic in a football game, close friends say they can see the 57-year-old former champion has been deeply hurt by business beatings.

"He has become very calloused," said Charles Tatelbaum, a friend and attorney who has represented Mr. Unitas for 17 years. "If you keep stepping on a thorn on your foot, you build up a callous. People have tried to use him. John believes in people."

All his setbacks pale compared with the $5.3 million in loan agreements that finally deposited Mr. Unitas into bankruptcy. In 1984, he and two associates purchased a Reisterstown circuit ++ board company and later moved it to Baltimore. To complete the deal, however, the men and their wives had to sign personal guarantees backing the millions of dollars in loans.

As it turned out, they were the most expensive autographs of Mr. Unitas' career.

*

John Constantine Unitas came out of Western Pennsylvania, a strong-armed coal deliveryman's son with a crew cut, stooped shoulders, and black high-top cleats. He mirrored blue-collar Baltimore, bestowing glory onto a blunt, unglamorous town. Bloodied and bruised, he could drag himself up from the mud and calmly beat his opponents with prescient play-calling and relentless proficiency.

His Hall of Fame career stretched over 18 seasons, during which he set seven lifetime NFL passing records. He was the star of "the greatest game ever played," the Colts' 1958 championship win over the New York Giants, and he was the starting quarterback in Super Bowl V in 1971, when the Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys.

He was the team's unquestioned leader, but he was a taciturn man who rarely revealed his emotions. He was an iceman, a quality that enabled him to perform clinically during a game but didn't permit his teammates to become close to him.

"I never really knew John," said Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, who spent hour after hour taking practice passes from Mr. Unitas.

He played during an era when players received their raises in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most of his teammates held off-season jobs, and all of them knew they would have to work full time when their playing days ended. For many, the goal was to build enough of a cash stake to begin a business. Jim Parker opened a liquor store. Art Donovan took over a country club. Gino Marchetti and Alan Ameche struck it rich as fast-food pioneers.

Even though Mr. Unitas was the biggest star of them all, his football salaries weren't enough to carry him for the rest of his life. He made $7,000 in his first season in 1956 with the Colts, and $250,000 in his last in 1973 with the San Diego Chargers. He, too, looked for ways to prosper away from the football field.

Money had never been plentiful for Mr. Unitas while growing up in Pittsburgh. He was accustomed to backbreaking labor, working odd jobs during the school year and on construction gangs in the summers. His University of Louisville career was sandwiched between jobs in a tobacco warehouse and construction.

Even as his NFL career took off and he left his blue-collar jobs behind, family obligations kept the pressure on Mr. Unitas to make money. Today, he has eight children by two marriages. He established trust funds to educate his five children by his first wife, Dorothy. His three youngest school-aged children remain with him and his wife, Sandra, at their imposing colonial home -- purchased in 1987 for $525,000 -- that overlooks sloping pasture land in Baldwin, in northeastern Baltimore County near the Harford County line.

He lives a comfortable, if not ostentatious, life. He owns American-made trucks and sedans. He vacations in Ocean City, where he owns a $165,000 condominium.

But friends say making money, while a necessity, was not his only ambition in business.

"I think John wants to succeed," said Mr. Tatelbaum. "I think he also wants to prove that he's more than a football player."

Steve Bohle, an executive in Mr. Unitas' air freight firm, said, "I think business is some form of competition for him."

Mr. Unitas began his first business venture early in his football career. In the spring of 1961, Mr. Unitas, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and local investor George Banks III opened Maryland's first tenpin bowling alley, Colt Lanes, across from the Social Security headquarters. The alley was outfitted with dark paneling, foam walls painted Colt blue and white, a thick carpet with the Colt insignia, and a giant horseshoe outside the front entrance.

He claimed that tenpins was the coming rage. He was wrong.

Within three years, Mr. Unitas' eight-house Colt Lanes operation, beset by debt and federal tax delinquency, was pushed into bankruptcy. Mr. Rosenbloom and Mr. Banks each lost $162,500. Mr. Unitas lost $21,666 in the deal, according to published accounts.

In retrospect, the Colt Lanes fiasco provided the model for Mr. Unitas' later failures. He was lured by friends into a misguided venture and then often failed to assert hands-on control to protect his interests. Although his personal involvement varied from venture to venture, he continually left day-to-day management of his businesses to others. And what he learned about business, he learned on the job.

Mr. Unitas, and the attorney handling his bankruptcy, James R. Wooton, declined to be interviewed for this article.

Friends and associates say Mr. Unitas approached business with the same attitude he brought to football. He took his hits, got up, and went on to the next play. Despite his setbacks, Mr. Unitas made it a point of pride to repay his debts.

Mr. Unitas had his successes. According to court documents, in the early '70s he had assets of nearly $2 million. He profited from his personal real estate holdings -- most notably, the Timonium house and land he purchased for $85,000 in 1971 and sold for $750,000 in 1987.

His most famous enterprise was the Golden Arm Restaurant that he and Colt teammate Bobby Boyd opened in 1968 in a York Road shopping center at the county line. The bar-restaurant, with walls covered by photographs of the Colts' greatest moments, attracted regular customers and tourists hoping to spot Mr. Unitas, who occasionally dropped in to shake hands.

"We made some good money in that thing for 15 years, steady as it could be," Mr. Boyd said.

After recovering from the bowling bankruptcy, Mr. Unitas

appeared to be on the rebound in the early 1970s. Although his 1972 divorce cost him "an awful lot of alimony," according to Mr. Tatelbaum, his financial picture seemed rosy. He received a $175,000 bonus and $250,000 for his last season in San Diego, had a broadcast contract with CBS-TV, and also earned $30,000 a year for 10 years after his retirement to act as a special consultant with the Colts.

But even in the early '70s, a financial disaster was emerging in Florida. Mr. Unitas and Dario Icardi, one of his high school coaches, became partners in a real estate deal. They invested in a hotel and restaurant by the airport, a 700-acre tract for housing 25 miles northwest of Orlando, an 88-acre plot in Deltona, and a crab and catfish supply company in Welaka.

The venture ended in acrimony and, for Mr. Unitas, a punishing financial loss. By 1978, in a $2.1 million lawsuit later settled for an undisclosed amount, Mr. Unitas was blaming Mr. Icardi for a raft of business sins and betrayals: moving money from his bank account without his knowledge; using his name to borrow money; purchasing swampland and leaving Mr. Unitas with the $100,000 bill.

To get out from under a $3.2 million mortgage, the partners were forced to give the hotel away to a Los Angeles investment trust.

"John's reaction was the deepest hurt you can get," said Mr. Tatelbaum, who brought the suit.

"I trusted one particular guy, somebody I'd known for years, and it about cost me everything I had," Mr. Unitas told The Evening Sun in March 1981. "You've got to know inside and out what he's doing. I didn't, and it had me in very bad shape."

Mr. Icardi died in May 1988.

After extracting himself from the Florida catastrophe, Mr. Unitas couldn't find financially secure footing. In 1981 he opened Baby Doe's Mining Company restaurant, in the former Penn Hotel in Towson, with Mr. Boyd and another partner. They made extensive renovations. The restaurant closed almost immediately.

"We opened as a prime rib place, and the price of beef went out of sight," Mr. Boyd said.

Mr. Unitas and Mr. Boyd managed to get a courier service off the ground in 1977. After meeting with early success -- employing a staff of 13, filling the streets of Baltimore with vehicles topped with Colt horseshoes and wracking up $1 million in annual sales -- the Johnny Unitas Air Freight and Courier Service went out of business in May 1984.

An accountant disappeared with $250,000 and the company folded, according to Mr. Bohle, a vice president of the firm. Mr. Bohle said Anne Arundel County prosecutors found there wasn't enough evidence to press charges.

"I walked in one day, and John said, 'It's over,' " Mr. Bohle said. "The money just wasn't there. John got stuck with the bills."

Even the Golden Arm wasn't immune from trouble. Mr. Unitas acquired a new partner in 1983 when Mr. Boyd sold his interest and returned home to Texas. Three years later, the partner, John T. Kahl, was charged with stealing more than $600,000 in insurance money from the City of Baltimore. A few months later, Mr. Unitas and Mr. Kahl sold the Golden Arm, which had started to accumulate debts. Kahl was convicted in 1988 of theft and was recently released from jail.

The restaurant is still in operation.

By then, Mr. Unitas had sustained two decades of losses in the business world. He never seemed to learn from his mistakes. The quarterback who could make dozens of split-second decisions in a game apparently could not distinguish between good and bad financial advice.

"John has faith in people," Mr. Sammis said. "He takes people fo their word. Have you ever known anyone who dealt with Unitas who dealt with an agent? No. He never had one. He had no one business-wise he could rely on. He has believed in what the people told him. He has had no one say to him, 'This is a bad deal.' John does it his way, and that's it. The word you use is stubborn. He has never had anyone in his corner."

He never lacked for business opportunities.

Mr. Tatelbaum said, "He used to be approached two or three times a month for deals, anything from gold mines to football pools. You name it, they brought it up to us."

F: And too often, it seems, Mr. Unitas gave the go-ahead.

*

On paper, it didn't look like a gamble. In fact, it had all the makings of a sure thing. No money down. Favorable terms. Government guarantees. And the business was proven, with a 26-year history of conservative management and a built-in customer base.

By all accounts, the quarterback who defined a bygone football generation believed he was buying into the future when he purchased a Reisterstown electronics firm, National Circuits Inc., for $3.5 million and promised to move it into Baltimore.

The date was Nov. 30, 1984. John and Sandra Unitas signed document after document at the Baltimore law office of Shapiro and Olander. By the time they left the meeting, they had promised to repay the loans to Union Trust Bank (now Signet Bank/Maryland) if their new business failed.

These were the autographs that 6 1/2 years later would land him in bankruptcy court.

NCI was Mr. Unitas' most ambitious venture. Buying the company was the idea of J. Clark Powers, a longtime friend who had worked 20 years for Westinghouse and had acted as host for Mr. Unitas' 50th birthday party. Mr. Powers invited Mr. Unitas and John Maas, a young accountant, to join him in the business of manufacturing electronic components on boards.

"It seemed at the time a very good deal," said Bernard L. Berkowitz, president of the Baltimore Economic Development Corp., which provided loans and guarantees. "It looked as if we were moving a company that was established, that had pretty good markets and a pretty good track record."

That day in the law office may have been the best the firm's new officers would enjoy. Undercapitalized, unprepared for a changing marketplace, and -- according to several former employees -- mismanaged, NCI soon was headed for financial ruin.

The combination of personal guarantees -- eventually adding up to $5.3 million -- from the three officers and their wives, and the pledge to move to Baltimore, was crippling.

Delays in renovating the Seton Industrial Park building, where NCI moved in 1986, caused production problems and curtailed cash intake. NCI failed to find new buyers. Even when it did, it underpriced the circuit boards, according to Mr. Maas. The company couldn't pay its bills. It couldn't even pay its taxes.

By 1990, the Internal Revenue Service said National Circuits owed more than $625,000 in back taxes and penalties.

The company's assets were sold to Atlantic Electronics for $1 million in May 1990. Its massive debts, however, remained with the partners and their wives.

In a pending suit against his former partners, Mr. Maas charge that "much of NCI's financial problems were directly attributable to the inability of Powers and Unitas to properly manage the company. Powers and Unitas lacked adequate business training and knowledge relating to the industry, were not able to handle ** personnel problems and were either not willing or not able to dedicate sufficient time to overseeing NCI's operations."

Mr. Powers, through an attorney, declined to comment.

According to Mr. Maas, although Mr. Unitas was involved in all significant decisions, his main role in the firm was as the chief sales representative.

"He could get in the door," Mr. Maas said. "When we went to Martin Marietta, we got in to see the head guy. Look, if Johnny Unitas called you, you'd answer the phone, wouldn't you?

"A lot of people are awe-struck about him," Mr. Maas continued. "A lot are very curious about him. Everyone is polite."

Even, apparently, the creditors. Lawyers for other NCI creditors said they were reluctant to force a Baltimore football legend into bankruptcy. They said they were waiting for Signet, his biggest creditor, to take that step.

After pressuring Mr. Unitas and NCI for four years, Signet began turning the last screws earlier this year when it obtained a lien against his Baldwin home and froze all his assets -- $685,000 in savings and pension accounts. Mr. Unitas declared bankruptcy Feb. 22. For the Signet loans alone, he is in default of more than $3 million. In addition, he is liable for nearly $900,000 in other judgments against NCI.

Signet has also sued the other two partners.

In filing for Chapter 11, a bankruptcy judge is likely to give the Unitases a budget and a schedule for paying their debts in an orderly way. No date has been set for a hearing.

Among the creditors are city and state agencies, which guaranteed most of the loans.

"This hurts," Mr. Tatelbaum said last Thursday.

"I talked to him yesterday. It pains him. Not just the embarrassment. It's not just that he didn't succeed. He feels he let some people down. . . . He was a great football player. I don't even think he will say he is a great businessman. He will say he is a very hard-working businessman. Hard-working doesn't always make you successful."

Not only has financial security once again eluded Mr. Unitas, bu now he faces the possibility of losing everything he has left -- his home, his cars, his savings. As he approaches 60 -- decades removed from his athletic accomplishments -- he may no longer be able to capitalize on his fading football fame.

Standing on a football field long ago, he typified assurance, brilliance and victory. But after years of financial setbacks, the image of Johnny Unitas as a winner is much less vivid.

The quarterback who was an idol became a businessman whnever found his way.

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