Hero for a working-class town

THE BALTIMORE SUN

They remembered the quarterback, of course, the gritty, big-handed athlete who consistently and calmly led the Baltimore Colts to football greatness in the late 1950s and '60s, electrifying an entire city.

But they also recalled the unassuming fellow who worked at Bethlehem Steel during the off-season for extra cash. Someone who would turn up at a cancer benefit for a woman he didn't know as a favor to a friend. A man who was buddies with his barber.

From City Hall to the American Legion hall, from Little Italy's boccie courts to local bars and beyond, fans and friends and admirers paused to remember Johnny Unitas, who died yesterday of a heart attack at age 69.

"Baltimore you always think of as a working-class town, and we ended up with a working-class hero," said director Barry Levinson, who celebrated his hometown's Colts obsession in the 1982 movie Diner. "It was a perfect match - Baltimore and Unitas."

In 1956, the year Unitas came to Baltimore after being cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was announced to the crowd as "Uni-TASS." It did not take long, though, for No. 19, the Golden Arm, to become "the biggest hero we had," Levinson said.

The on-field heroics - the breathtaking victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game was but the best-known example - mesmerized fans. Years later, even as the Orioles became one of baseball's best teams, the toughest ticket in town was a Colts game.

"You woke up in Baltimore on Sunday morning when the Colts were here and you could just feel it in the air," said Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger.

Joseph J. DiBlasi, a former Baltimore City Councilman, remembers being at Memorial Stadium in December 1956 as Unitas marched down the field. DiBlasi, 10 at the time, can still picture Unitas connecting with wide receiver Jim Mutscheller for a last-second, game-winning score.

"That touchdown pass I remember vividly," he said.

It is hard to underestimate the fervor with which fans cheered on the team, and especially Unitas, throughout the 1960s.

"During the heyday of the Baltimore Colts, the whole town rallied around his leadership," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "I knew him personally. He was a tough guy and a great guy and had a great sense of humor."

Word of Unitas' death traveled quickly yesterday afternoon. On a day when the country marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some Unitas fans found his death competing for their emotional attention.

"In a way it's as significant for me as reliving everything that happened a year ago, his dying today of all days," said Ray Marocco Jr., 52, of Lutherville, who often went to games in the 1960s.

At the 4100 Club in Brooklyn Park, a local restaurant and bar lined with autographed Unitas photos, customers recalled an old-time player who had an easy way about him and always had time for his fans.

"He'd walk in and the man would always remember your name," said Joe Williams, 54, of Baltimore. Richard Hartlove, 62, of Dundalk, said fans related to Unitas because he did not hold himself above others.

"John Unitas - he was just a real gentleman," said Hartlove. "Easygoing. Never shied away from those who wanted to go meet him. Always humble with his receipt of praise."

Unitas, who began going to the club with other players in the 1950s, rarely missed an annual Easter party that owners Manny and Dino Spanomanolis held for neighborhood kids. In one photo, Unitas shows up at the Easter party on crutches.

"I loved the man like a brother," said Manny Spanomanolis.

On the field, Unitas was not a hot dog. He did not dance in the end zone or preen for cameras. Stoicism was more his style, even when he was bruised and battered.

"Now you get a finger cut, and you're out of the game. He'd go out with his face slashed," said state comptroller and former mayor William Donald Schaefer, who said news of Unitas' sudden death hit him "like a punch in the belly."

After practices, Unitas and receiver Raymond Berry were known to stay on the field long after the others had left, practicing pass patterns.

Unitas showed a determination to win, and when the game was on the line, fans recalled an astounding steeliness as he marched the team downfield.

"He never showed the emotion. It was almost like the classic Western hero," Levinson said. "Because he never showed emotion, it made us even more emotional."

Last night in Little Italy, a sadness fell over the boccie ball courts where wives, husbands, sons and daughters turned out for an evening game.

Among the rollers was Guy Platania, Unitas' barber for the past 25 years. To him, Unitas was a down-to-earth customer who often joked or whistled on his way into the shop, Progressive You, near York and Timonium roads.

Unitas was also Platania's neighbor on Timonium Road. The two exchanged Christmas cards, and when Platania turned 60, Unitas was there to help him celebrate.

"For me to come here tonight and play boccie, it makes my arms get pimples," said Platania, 68. "There are no words to explain the person he was. All the way down from Timonium, I couldn't get in the mood [to play boccie]. I don't really feel like playing."

The men at the Towson lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks said Unitas was an idol to them when they were growing up, but over the years, almost all of them gained personal connections to him.

One of the members, Bob Miller, said he held a fund-raiser when his wife was diagnosed with cancer to help pay for her treatment. He didn't know Unitas, but a friend did, and Unitas came to the fund-raiser and signed a football to auction off.

"He was a real class act," Miller said. "He was such a down-to-earth person, nothing like the stars today. Just an ordinary guy."

At the American Legion Towson Post 22 on York Road, there were similar stories of seeing a personal side to Unitas.

Allen Strack, 61, of Towson, one of the past commanders of the post, said he met Unitas when the young quarterback first came to Baltimore around 1956.

Strack, who worked at Eddie's Supermarket, then at Loch Raven Boulevard and Joppa Road, said the first thing he noticed was the size of Unitas' hands.

"We became friendly when he came in to shop with his wife," Strack said. "We talked about football all the time and even his playing days in college."

Strack said he saw Unitas off and on for about 20 years, at the supermarket and at Unitas' former restaurant, the Golden Arm, on York Road near Towson.

"He was the only one who could be Johnny Unitas," said Don McCafferty, proprietor of McCafferty's restaurant in Mount Washington and son of the former Colts coach of the same name. "There can never be another. And not just as a football hero, but as a person."

Jim McKay, the veteran ABC broadcaster and pioneer in Baltimore television, said Unitas epitomized the reasons McKay loves living in Maryland, where people are proud of the athletes who come to play and later stay.

"He was a very good man. He was much more than just a quarterback," McKay said. "He never pretended to be an idol or an icon.

"He was Johnny Unitas, and what you saw was what you got."

Sun staff writers Laura Barnhardt, Johnathon E. Briggs, Michael Dresser, Andrew A. Green, Norm Gomlak, Stephanie Hanes, Linda Linley, Alec MacGillis and Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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