But Unitas' son said last night that Sunday's appearance in Spartanburg, S.C., does not mean the Hall of Fame quarterback has switched loyalties in the race for a team.
John Unitas Jr. labeled a report in a Columbia, S.C., newspaper that indicated Unitas had abandoned Baltimore's effort as "absolute b."
"It's preposterous to think my father ever would be in support of Charlotte over Baltimore," the younger Unitas said.
Sunday's edition of The State said: "Organizers say the irony of the pep rally finds Unitas . . . now supporting Richardson's bid against Baltimore." The story said former Colts receiver Alex Hawkins also would be among the more than a dozen former NFL players participating in the pep rally. Hawkins lives in Atlanta.
Unitas, who quarterbacked the Colts from 1956 to 1972, was unavailable for comment. But his 36-year-old son was adamant that Unitas was not bailing out on Baltimore's bid for an NFL team.
"My father is going down to Carolina because Jerry Richardson is a very close personal friend," Unitas' son said. "Anyone who knows my father knows he is loyal to Baltimore, to the people who live here and to his family. If anyone truly knows my father, they know that's the way it is.
"He's going down there because Mr. Richardson is his friend. And he's going down as his friend, not to support Charlotte over Baltimore."
Jerry Richardson was a wide receiver with the Colts -- and a teammate of Unitas -- in 1959 and 1960. Richardson and his son, Mark, formed Richardson Sports in 1987 in an attempt to bring an NFL team to Charlotte.
Mark Richardson said yesterday from Charlotte that Unitas simply was returning a favor.
"I wouldn't characterize it as John being down here on behalf of the Carolina effort," said Mark Richardson, general manager of Richardson Sports. "The reason he's coming here is, a friend asked him to attend the event. My father has done things before that John asked him to do.
"It's unfair to characterize his appearance as supporting Carolina over Baltimore. He's not working against Baltimore. Our understanding is he's actively involved in trying to promote Baltimore."
Richardson declined to say whether Unitas was being paid to attend the pep rally. He said Unitas has not been offered a position with the prospective team.
Asked whether there were financial considerations in making the appearance, Unitas' son said, "Not at all . . . he's a friend of Mr. Richardson."
At least one former teammate agreed that Unitas' rooting interest still was with Baltimore.
"I would think John is going down to try and help a friend," said Tom Matte, a Colts running back from 1961 to 1972. "John is not the kind of guy who would backstab Baltimore. He's trying to help Jerry Richardson come in second."
Baltimore, Charlotte and St. Louis are considered the front-runners on the NFL's short list of expansion candidates.
"Johnny Unitas lives here, his family lives here, he's part of the community," said Tom Clancy, author and leader of one of the potential ownership groups of a franchise here. "I can't imagine John doing anything to hurt Baltimore. I will not believe he's doing such a thing.
"If it's helping an old friend, I admire [his] loyalty. But to make it a political thing is wrong."
Joe Washington, a running back with the Colts from 1978 to 1980 who recently joined the potential ownership group led by Leonard "Boogie" Weinglass, said he could understand Unitas' decision to attend the pep rally.
"You do things for friends," said Washington. "John's a strong supporter of Baltimore. He's a Colt. I believe he's trying to bring football back to Baltimore.
"When you think of John Unitas, you think of Baltimore."