Soon, John Unitas will become acquainted, in person, with a replica of himself, a creation In bronze that will serve as the centerpiece for the University of Louisville's new football stadium. The statue, spectacularly realistic, is in its final stages, approaching completion with only a matter of weeks before being prepared for delivery.
The impressive work has been produced by one Frederick Kail, who first sculptured miniature football figurines of the Baltimore Colts to help pay his tuition at the Maryland Institute. College of Art, precisely 40 years ago. It was then he first met Unitas, when both were young and aspiring. True artists pursuing different endeavors.
Kail was commissioned by the university last September to produce a 7-foot, 950-pound model of Unitas, who graduated from Louisville to the NFL, with a stop-off as a $6 a game quarterback for the semipro Bloomfield Rams, before emerging as the premier leader, the consummate field general of the Colts for 17 seasons, and then a unanimous selection to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
It's a fitting tribute to Unitas. Also, an unprecedented honor arranged by his alma mater, which takes immense pride in his storied achievements, both during his college years and then as a professional. Unitas is indeed synonymous with Louisville football, without a doubt the most gifted player in the 83-year history of the school's involvement with the sport.
Louisville awarded Unitas a scholarship in 1951 when others looked away. After he demonstrated what he could do for a weak, undermanned program, he was then invited to leave and take his ability elsewhere. Indiana suggested he transfer there and use his last two years of college eligibility at a higher level of play. After hearing of Indiana's belated interest, Unitas decided he wasn't going to turn his back on the coach, the one man, Frank Camp, who had recruited him when more prominent schools failed to foresee his potential.
Now Louisville is about to bring Unitas to its campus once again - this time as a standing statue on a block of black granite. "I don't honestly know how I look; none of us do," said Unitas, when asked what he thought of seeing himself in all the stages of the statue's development. "Fred Kail, in my opinion, is a genius. I think he captured me. My friends at the university are paying me an enormous compliment with the statue and museum."
Unitas, through no fault of his own, was on only one winning team in college, when as a freshman the record was barely 5-4. After his sophomore year, 1952, a 3-5 showing, the president of the university decided the sport should be deemphasized. Some players were dropped because of poor grades. Others left on their own. Almost a purge. An exodus of immense proportion. Unitas, though, remained with the remnants of a squad that won only one of eight games that next season and was 3-6 when he was a senior.
He vividly remembers Louisville having to meet Tennessee. A horrendous experience. At halftime, Tennessee coach Harvey Robinson, in an act of mercy, told his starting players to take off their uniforms, shower and watch as spectators while the reserves handled the last two periods. Playing both ways, Unitas continually came up to make head-on tackles as powerful Tennessee ran at will. When the rout was over, Unitas' shoulders were so bruised from the pounding that he couldn't remove the jersey and pads without help from the equipment manager.
Louisville is aware and appreciative of the presence Unitas has brought to the university. A campus dormitory is named in his honor and, following each football season, a civic banquet in the city presents the nation's leading senior college quarterback with the John Unitas Golden Arm Award. Now, a larger than life-sized likeness of Unitas that's being prepared at Baltimore's New Art Foundry will be placed behind an end zone at the new 45,000-seat football facility that is to be known as Papa 'John's Cardinal Stadium, named for the pizza company that Is helping to pay for its $63 million construction.
The Unitas statue and a Unitas museum will come as a generous gift to the university from BellSouth. The price tag for the statue is estimated at $110,000. Such wondrous creations are never cheap, which is why only the elite of sports have been cast in bronze, such as Babe Ruth, Cal Ripken, Connie Mack, Stan Musial, Roberto Clemente and Jimmie Foxx, among others.
Unitas is not portrayed wearing a helmet. That would have obscured his facial characteristics. Kail presents Unitas looking the part of a collegian, wearing No. 16, his Louisville number, and also with the flattop hairstyle he wore in an earlier time.
There's a certain "frozen animation" to what Kail has crafted. He has molded Unitas in the process of setting up to pass, body somewhat lowered and arm raised. The statue transmits a sense of forged action, not just, another lump of bronze. "It's a' great pleasure for me, being selected by John himself, to do this," said Kail. "What satisfies me the most is I'm helping to immortalize someone worth immortalizing."
Kail, like Unitas, is a native Pennsylvanian, born in Uniontown, where he has returned for two homecoming shows. Besides his sculptures, he works in watercolors, audio-visual productions and graphic designs. He had previously developed a bronze bust of Unitas, in 1973, which is displayed inside the entrance of Unitas' country residence in Baldwin.
It's Kail's hope Baltimore will eventually erect a monument to Unitas and all its Hall of Fame members, numbering Art Donovan. Lenny Moore, Gino Marchetti, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry, John Mackey, Weeb Ewbank, Don Shula, Y. A. Tittle, Ted Hendricks, Joe Perry and George Blanda. That would be an expensive undertaking. But for now, Unitas is the focus. The dedication of the statue Aug. 29 in Louisville promises to be a, pleasurable event.
When he played in college, a banner outside Parkway Field, once proclaimed, "Come See Unitas' Pass." One of his prankish classmates took the "P" away, and everybody had a good laugh. Now comes the ceremony, in a special and personal way, of what John Constantine Unitas has truly meant to the university that offered a chance when others turned him down.
The respect and affection in which he's held is exemplified by a school that cares so much about him that it's erecting a statue to be displayed for time immemorial.