Service, tributes set for Unitas


Across the country, fans, teammates and relatives of John Unitas scrambled to prepare tributes to the Hall of Fame quarterback who died unexpectedly Wednesday.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, plans to celebrate a funeral Mass at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore.

Former teammates and other National Football League greats began making arrangements to attend what could practically become a Hall of Fame reunion.

In Indianapolis, current Colts quarterback Peyton Manning requested permission from the league to wear a pair of black hightop shoes during the Colts-Dolphins game in Indianapolis, in tribute to his predecessor. Unitas wore the distinctive footwear throughout his 18-season career when the Colts played in Baltimore.

The Ravens scheduled a series of events to precede Sunday's home opener against Tampa Bay, including a ceremonial unveiling of a No. 19 insignia painted onto the turf and a pair of hightops at the sideline spot where Unitas had become a fixture since the team began playing at the stadium in 1998.

In cyberspace, a quixotic movement was launched to name the Ravens' stadium for the late player.

Steve Gardner, a Harford County engineer, set up a petition at urging that the stadium be renamed "Johnny Unitas Memorial Stadium." By last night, the petition had collected more than 21,000 signatures.

"He's a legend, and he needs to be honored," said Gardner, who promoted the effort along with Ravens Booster Club founder Doug Phillip.

The facility, which opened in 1998, had been known as PSINet Stadium until the namesake Internet services firm filed for bankruptcy. The facility is now called Ravens Stadium, but the team had said it needed the revenue from a naming sponsor to field a competitive team and would seek a new sponsor. Naming rights can be worth more than $2 million a year during a long-term deal.

Yesterday, Ravens spokesman Kevin Byrne declined to comment on the petition drive but gave no indication the team had altered its intentions.

"It has been less than 24 hours since he passed away, and we're not going to talk about that right now," Byrne said.

Maryland Stadium Authority Executive Director Richard Slosson said the issue was in the hands of the Ravens, who purchased the rights from the state.

Old Colts on their way

Radio personality Tom Matte, who lives in Baltimore, said he had received calls from former Colts around the country who plan to attend the services Tuesday. "He was a very special friend to me," said Matte, a Colts halfback from 1961 to 1972.

"When you played with John, you were part of something great," he said.

Baltimore Marching Ravens director John Zieman said the band, which began as the Colts Marching Band when that franchise was based in the city, plans to perform the Colts fight song at a Ravens game for the first time Sunday.

The band will also spell out Unitas' uniform number, 19, on the field as part of the pre-game ceremony that will begin at 12:40 p.m.

A brief commemoration of Sept. 11 will also be held after player introductions.

The team said it hopes to go forward with previous plans to unveil a 20-foot tall, bronze statue of Unitas on Oct. 20, to be placed outside the north end of the stadium. The team is awaiting approval from the Unitas family to continue with the planned tribute.

"He was to football and Baltimore what Cal Ripken is to baseball and Baltimore," Ravens owner Art Modell said.

Unitas spent 17 years with the Baltimore Colts, but he angrily denounced the franchise when it moved to Indianapolis in 1984. When the Ravens came to Baltimore from Cleveland before the 1996 season, Unitas began cheering for the new home team.

The Colts' current quarterback needs NFL approval, and is seeking the blessing of Unitas' family, to wear the hightops, which he has ordered from Reebok. "To me, Johnny U. is a guy the whole league should honor," Manning said. "Maybe every quarterback ought to wear black hightops on Sunday."

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, the official repository of many Unitas artifacts, is assembling a Unitas display.

Longtime Unitas friend Richard Sammis said the former player's family remained in seclusion yesterday and did not want to make a public statement. "They are in shock. They cannot believe it," he said.

Unitas, 69, suffered a fatal heart attack about 3 p.m. at a Timonium physical therapy center where he had exercised for many years. Though he had undergone emergency heart surgery in 1993, Unitas had been active and appeared healthy in recent years, Sammis said.

3-time MVP

Unitas played for the Baltimore Colts from 1956 to 1972, and for the San Diego Chargers in 1973. He set 22 NFL passing records during his career, was named Most Valuable Player of the NFL three times and was named to the Pro Bowl 10 times.

A spokesman for Keeler confirmed that the cardinal will officiate at the cathedral, at 5200 N. Charles Street, during services that will be open to the public. As many as 2,200 people can be seated.

The casket will remain closed throughout the service, and the body will be cremated. Arrangements are being coordinated by Ruck Towson Funeral Home Inc.

In lieu of flowers, the family is asking that donations be made to one of Unitas' favorite charities: TurnAround, 401 Washington Ave., Suite 300, Towson 21204, or Johnny Unitas' Golden Arm Foundation Inc., P.O. Box 9777, Baldwin 21013-9777.

Sun staff writer Paul McMullen, staff researcher Paul McCardell and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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