Unitas recovers with help of family, friends Ex-Colts quarterback awaits release today


When John Unitas talked about what family and friends mean to him, there in the quiet of his hospital room, he uncharacteristically put a hand to his left eye to remove a tear.

The most accomplished quarterback in the history of the NFL is recovering from heart bypass surgery and wants a multitude of well-wishers to realize how grateful he is for their messages and prayers.

It's likely that doctors at the University of Maryland Medical Center will discharge him later today. The surgery took place 12 days ago, the recuperation progressed without difficulty and he's enthusiastic, as any patient would be, of the promise to return home to complete his convalescence.

"Please thank the public for me," he said, "for the cards, letters and prayers, most of all the prayers. People don't have to be so kind, but they are.

"It's just a tremendous world when sports allows a person like me to play a game and, by so doing, is able to create an image for himself that's revered. The obligation is immense, and I tried to be a role model without ever being a big-timer. I've been out of the game 20 years. For people to remember me in such a way says how much good there is about being able to play football."

On the other side of his bed, his wife, Sandra, reached down and held up two shopping bags of "get well" mail. "It's from all over the world," she said.

Relaxed and dressed in blue pajamas (the jersey color of his old Baltimore Colts team), Unitas was reflective on the experience of what it felt like to undergo a serious operation, but also injected a bit of the usual Unitas candor. You're looking good, a visitor mentioned.

"I guess so," he answered with a laugh. "After you've been in the hospital this long you ought to look good."

Then, in replying to an inquiry about the devotion of his family, he began to speak, paused and wiped his eye.

"That lady right there [pointing to his wife] has done so much for me. I could never repay her. And she told me the children didn't have to be asked to come here. They just responded. Sandra and the kids deserve all my thanks. She never left my side."

"I just didn't want him to come out of the post-operative period," she said, "and to be awake for the first moment, to look around and not see a familiar face."

Unitas didn't reveal his feelings as a player, but his emotions were evident as he talked about his family and the emergency surgery.

"I never had a chance to pray," he said. "But I'm thanking the Lord for being so good to me. For five days, after the bypass, it was the weirdest feeling. I was out of it. I was flying missions to Mars, kind of like 'Star Wars'. It was a result of all the medication."

4 The heart problem for Unitas developed suddenly.

He had no indication when he went to Kernan Hospital for a knee-replacement operation on March 4 and then, within 24 hours, he had shortness of breath and chest pains. He was taken by ambulance to the cardiac unit at the University of Maryland Hospital Center and his condition was far more serious than anticipated.

"I'll try to tell you what I do remember," Unitas said. "The operation at Kernan went fine. I had a wonderful roommate, a great kid, a 14-year-old MS patient. I was feeling good. It was the day after, Friday evening, and I had dinner. Sandra went out of the room to get a soft drink. My daughter Janice was there with her husband. Then I had this shortness of breath. All hell broke loose. From that point, I was mostly out of town."

Unitas, 59, never a smoker and, at 190, six pounds lighter than when he played, realizes how fortunate he was to have suffered the arterial blockage in a hospital, where he got immediate attention.

He does remember, although in a vague sort of way, doctors telling him the situation was serious and needed to be corrected with little time for consideration. "Then go ahead and do what you have to do," his wife quoted him as saying. "There's no alternative."

So now, almost two weeks after the crisis, he reviews his case history and realizes how precarious it was. "This hospital is a great place to be," he added.

"My wife and I have looked around and watched. Every individual gets first-rate care. I'm just glad they brought me here. They save a lot of lives in this place."

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