Unitas' wife lets out her secret, says she was abused by father

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Sandy Unitas says she remembers her terror -- a 5-year-old huddled behind a high-backed chair, eyes squeezed shut, fingers in her ears. She remembers the sound of coins jangling in her father's pocket, a signal he was approaching. And she remembers her prayer:

"Please, Daddy, don't call my name this time. Please. Please."

Sandy Unitas, who for 22 years has been known in Baltimore as wife of the legendary Colts quarterback, this weekend took on a new public role: She has declared herself an incest survivor.

Yesterday, Mrs. Unitas stood on a Denver stage and addressed the annual meeting of Heart Paths, a nonprofit Denver organization devoted to counseling and education about incest. It was the first time she had detailed publicly the abuse she says she endured and the scars that have marked her since.

She told the audience of her memories: how her father would summon her to the bathroom, how he would hold her down. She told them of the pain, even the smells she remembers.

And she recalled the fear she felt of the wavy-haired "charmer" who, she says, had many friends but who didn't know how to be a father or husband. He is still alive, living in Texas, but a reporter's efforts to reach him were unsuccessful. She hasn't seen him since she was in her early 20s. "In my heart," she says, "he died many years ago."

Her Denver speech outlined the effects of the early abuse. "From a very early age, I had experienced almost constant feelings of fear, abandonment, loneliness, insecurity, confusion, worthlessness and pain. And the pain was always there," she told an audience of several hundred.

To this day, she says, she has a fear of being held down. Even a welcome hug from one of her children that is too enveloping and too long makes her anxious.

And she will not lock the doors on bathrooms -- the room she says her father would take her into late at night, while her mother was at work. "If I can get away with it, I leave the door open," she says.

She knows that public discussions of incest are no longer rare. But to people who say they're tired of hearing such tales, even suspicious of the tellers' motives, Mrs. Unitas says: "If they were inside the body of a person who was abused, or if their child was abused, or their grandchild, they would think differently."

She hopes that if people with famous names step forward to tell their stories, other incest survivors may not feel as alone.

Mr. Unitas knew about his wife's childhood before they were married and supported her as she sought counseling to help with her problems. When she recently decided to become active in incest-survivors' groups, she asked him what he would think if she made her history public. His famous name, of course, would be part of the story.

"I asked him if he had any problems with it at all. And he said, 'No. If that's what it takes you to heal, you go ahead and do it.' "

On Friday, she sat in her Baltimore County home and talked in her soft drawl about her girlhood in Tallahassee, Fla.

Her mother was 15, her father 17 when they married. Sandy was the younger of two girls born less than two years apart.

Mary Duff, Mrs. Unitas' mother, says of her first husband: "I loved him very much. We had gotten our first house in Tallahassee."

'Daddy does bad things'

Mrs. Duff, only in her early 20s when the abuse allegedly occurred, worked nights at the phone company. One evening, she made her regular coffee-break call home to find Sandy crying on the phone, "Daddy does bad things to me."

She says she immediately borrowed the bus fare home, moved the girls to a neighbor's for the night, then went back to work. The next morning she confronted her husband. "I walked out and never went back to him," she says, tears falling.

Mrs. Unitas' grandmother persuaded Mrs. Duff not to press charges, Mrs. Duff says. "People didn't talk about things like this then."

So Mrs. Unitas' father was gone, but her problems continued. Her mother, Mrs. Unitas says, married a man with an explosive temper, and she says he abused his family emotionally and physically. When that marriage began to fall apart, a judge, trying to find a stable place for the girls and unaware of the old incest allegations, sent the sisters to Virginia -- to live with their father.

He had, by now, remarried and had three more children. Mrs. Unitas, then a teen-ager, says her father never touched her during this time, and her half-siblings never complained of any abuse.

But that marriage didn't last either, and Mrs. Unitas, who wanted to stay in Virginia, moved in with the family of a high school friend until she graduated and went out on her own.

Mrs. Unitas says the people closest to her knew her story.

"We've talked about it many many times," says Donna Lehmann, Mrs. Unitas' half-sister, from her home in Las Vegas. "I've known about it for many, many years.

"I think it's wonderful that she has finally decided to go public with this," says Ms. Lehmann, who is younger than Mrs. Unitas.

Mrs. Unitas will not discuss her older sister's childhood, except to say, "I have learned I cannot speak for other people."

Once she was married, Mrs. Unitas -- a former flight attendant -- busied herself with caring for her husband and their three children. But she says the effects of her childhood abuse were always with her. "Highs and lows," she says. "Defensiveness. I wouldn't let people get close to me."

As each of her children approached 5 years old, she found herself dwelling anew on what she remembered of her own childhood.

She had avoided news reports or fiction that involved incest until September 1993, when by chance she tuned into a television movie about a woman who confronted her father years after the incest had ended.

Incest complaint filed

The next morning, Mrs. Unitas says, she called the Tallahassee Police Department and filed an incest complaint against her father. Police there confirm the existence of the report. But she says a prosecutor warned her that pursuing the case would be difficult: Newer incest cases fill the docket; the alleged incident was more than 40 years old; her father is in Texas, while she lives in Maryland and the alleged crime occurred in Florida.

She decided instead to become involved with groups organized to help people with histories like hers.

Through Marilyn Van Derbur Atler, a former Miss America who with her sisters was sexually abused by her father, Mrs. Unitas became involved with One Voice and the American Coalition for Abuse Awareness, Washington groups that help educate about incest.

Last month, she attended one of their meetings and, for the first time, in front of about two dozen people, introduced herself as "Sandy Unitas, incest survivor."

"That was a big step," she says. But after the words came out of her mouth, she realized "it was almost cleansing. It's not going to be a closet secret anymore."

Last week, she began preparing the people around her for her Denver speech. She had discussed her history with her older son a few years ago. Now she sat down her two younger children, both adolescents. She told her daughter's principal, in case her classmates began talking. She warned her nearest neighbors. "I didn't want them to just pick up the newspaper. . . ."

She describes the reactions as uniformly kind and supportive.

Mrs. Unitas says her relationship with her mother -- a sprightly 69-year-old whose third husband died last year after 33 years of marriage -- is better than ever.

Two years ago, Mrs. Unitas told her mother she intended to work on the incest issue.

"I told her that, whatever she wanted to do, I was for," Mrs. Duff says. "I'd be a poor mother if I didn't."

And Mrs. Unitas' mother says she's proud her girl is doing so well. "I have my daughter back," she says.

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