THERE IS NO doubt that the stadium in which the Ravens play should be named for Johnny Unitas. The statue to be dedicated in his memory next month is a wonderful tribute, but it does not go far enough. If all the statements by all the politicians, pundits, sportscasters, talk-show hosts and their callers, readers of this newspaper, Ravens players and team officials are on target, John Unitas is Baltimore and Baltimore is John Unitas. The stadium should be named John Unitas Stadium.
What a wonderful, post-Enron (Field) way of saying no to greed, and yes to an honorable man.
The stadium should have been named for Johnny U. while he was with us, of course, but that opportunity disappeared when some now-failed Internet company came along with $105 million for the Ravens. The stadium was publicly financed, created by the state to lure a football team back to Baltimore, but instead of naming it after a genuine hero of the city - and perhaps the greatest legend of the National Football League - the name went to the highest bidder.
It's time to roll on. It's time for the Ravens to do something different and grand and beautiful - to resist the temptation to take more millions from some corporation with no ties to the old hometown. It's time for the Ravens, who have been treated like kings by the taxpayers and football fans of this state, to give us something that will have meaning for ages. Name the stadium Unitas.
This football team was estimated by Fortune magazine last month to be the fifth-most-valuable in the NFL. But, even without the millions the Ravens could reap from selling the name again, the franchise would still look pretty on the ledgers. (The Ravens are going to construct a new training facility in Owings Mills, but they didn't have to buy the land for it because the Baltimore County Council agreed to lease them public parkland that might have been used for a municipal golf course or - I know this sounds out of character for Owings Mills - good ole open space.)
In Houston, Minute Maid put up $170 million for the Astros' stadium. Lincoln Financial Group put up $140 million for the Eagles' home in Philadelphia. The last time the Ravens sold the name, they hadn't been to the Super Bowl. That they've become champs since then only makes the stadium more attractive for a corporate logo. Given the recent deals elsewhere, the highest bidder could offer $120 million to $150 million to $175 million. Enough to buy the Modells three or four more vacation homes each!
But the Ravens should just say no.
This time the bidder is civic pride. This time the bidder is an entire region's emotional attachment to a man, a hero, a legend. You can't put a price on that.
If the Modell family - and Stephen J. Bisciotti, the Ravens' owner-in-waiting - want to do one final thing to cap the team's resettlement in Baltimore and establish themselves ever more firmly in the hearts and minds of a new generation of fans, then they should put the name of a great good man on that great good place.
I'll tell you what: Whether the Ravens do the right thing or not, you won't see any other name in this space again. Whenever I get to the place in a sentence where reference must be made to the stadium by Russell Street where the Ravens play, it'll be Unitas Stadium. Promise.
A hike that could help
Some stories come back to me when I least expect them. Last week, when I sat with Priscilla Waldman to talk about her son, she mentioned how we all had been together - by my estimation, 20 years ago - for a moonlight hike along the Gunpowder River. Her son, Leif Shock III, was about 4 at the time. A biologist led a group of us on an evening walk to hear spring peepers and scout amphibian life in the ooze along the river. It was a wonderful evening, full of discoveries under flashlight. I wrote a column about it.
Now, all these years later, Priscilla Waldman tells me of the tragic twists and turns of her son's life - into troubled adolescence, drug addiction and incarceration and, finally, his death by heroin overdose two days short of his 23rd birthday. It happened two summers ago. Leif was found in his truck on the parking lot of a shopping center on Edmondson Avenue.
He had grown up in Carroll County, but that did not keep him from falling into the terrible trap. He had dyslexia and had struggled to learn and, more important, to fit in. "Leif had a high IQ," his mother says, "but he was very much aware that he didn't fit in, and he wanted to. It was very hard for him to understand the gifts that he did have - he was physically beautiful, very personable and humorous, and he could get along with anyone - and how having those gifts was better than fitting in any box. He often said, 'I just want to be an Average Joe,' to be recognized and accepted."
She offers all this as a way of explaining why his life went as it did - through a cycle of counseling, treatment, arrest, incarceration, rehabilitation and relapse - and ended as it did.
Only now, after two years, has she felt like speaking of Leif in public. She has given "Not My Kid" warnings at Carroll County back-to-school nights, and she's been helping to promote Leif's Memorial 3K Walk/5K Run. It will take place Sunday, from 8 till 11 a.m., at the Carroll County Farm Museum. The money raised from registration fees will go for drug recovery efforts in Carroll County. Call 410-239- 3350 if you'd like to take a hike or run through the countryside in memory of Leif and for the sake of others who need help before it's too late.