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Sighting Unitas made Baltimore seem like home


YOU GO AHEAD and summon your favorite memory of John Unitas: barking signals at the line of scrimmage with that familiar, round-shouldered hunch, dropping back into the pocket in those trademark black high-tops, slinging the ball downfield in a graceful arc to Raymond Berry or Jimmy Orr as the stadium explodes in a sea of noise.

Me, I'll always remember him with a dab of tomato sauce on his chin.

It was the fall of 1981, and I was brand new to Baltimore, the newly hired sports columnist for one of the local fishwraps, The Evening Sun. Earlier in the day, I had just banged out my first column, a thoroughly forgettable dissection of the Mike McCormick-coached Colts that set sportswriting back 200 years.

Now my wife and I were sitting in a pizza joint in Towson. In the midst of stuffing a slice of pepperoni into my big, fat face, I happened to glance over my wife's shoulder. And there he was: my boyhood idol, No. 19, Johnny U., with his family.

"Holy cow!" I hissed to my wife. "That guy behind you? That's Johnny Unitas!"

At this, my wife stifled a yawn, stabbed a fork into her salad and, with the kind of impeccable timing that only the great ones possess, said: "Who's Johnny Unitas?"

When I told Unitas that story years later, he roared. But me, I was sold on Baltimore that chilly autumn evening.

What a great town! I thought as I watched Unitas gently doling out pizza to his kids. Maybe if we go get an ice cream, we'll bump into Brooks Robinson!

Now, John Unitas is gone, as you may have heard. He died the other day at 69. The great heart gave out during an afternoon workout at a physical therapy center. No one needed physical therapy more than the gritty Unitas, who spent 18 years in pro football and felt like he'd been run over by a bus every day after he got out.

In this town, of course, he was a legend. He led the Colts to those championships and set all sorts of passing records, including 47 consecutive games in which he threw for a touchdown pass, which is phenomenal.

So, OK, count me as one of those who says he was the greatest quarterback of all time. But what I'll always remember about Unitas is what a great person he was, as down-to-earth as any pro athlete I've ever met.

A few years ago, I called him up and invited him to lunch. I was doing a story on this town's new NFL team, which had been the Cleveland Browns before owner Art Modell stuck a dagger into the belly of that city and moved the team to Baltimore.

I wanted to know what Unitas thought of some of the nicknames being proposed for the new team, Bombers, Railers,-man, they were throwing some ugly names around.

So we met at McCafferty's in Mount Washington, where Unitas ordered a Jack Daniels and Coke and made faces at every proposed name I threw at him. When I said Ravens, I thought he was going to spit the drink halfway across the room.

That out of the way, Unitas spent the next three hours tweaking his legendary status, his image as some kind of god of Baltimore's blue-collar, marble-stoop set.

When I told him about my wife's reaction that day in the pizza joint, he told me a funny story about something that happened to him at BWI airport a few years earlier.

With time to kill before his flight, he bought a newspaper and wandered into one of the lounges to grab a beer. As he walked in, a voice next to him cried: "Brooks!" Unitas ignored the voice at first. But it persisted: "Brooks! Brooks!" And when Unitas looked up, sure enough, this guy was smiling and waving at him.

At this point, it occurred to Unitas that he might now be in the presence of that most annoying of all human beings: the celebrity kiss-up. And apparently a blind celebrity kiss-up, no less.

"Are you talking to me?" Unitas said to the guy. "I'm not Brooks Robinson."

"Bull!" the guy replied. "You're Brooks Robinson. I just spent last weekend with you down on the Eastern Shore!"

Buddy, Unitas said, you got the wrong guy. But this pain-in-the-neck, he wouldn't let up. You're Brooks Robinson, he kept saying, going so far as to demand that Unitas show him ID to prove he wasn't the Orioles Hall of Famer.

When Unitas produced his driver's license, the man looked at it and said: "Damn! You're not Brooks Robinson! Well, do you play golf? Why don't you come down to North Carolina, and we'll play some golf."

Oh, Unitas cackled after he told that one. The truth is, he loved living in Baltimore. He loved the good-heartedness of its people, and the passion this town had for football.

As our lunch arrived that day at McCafferty's, he told me that his first indication of how football-crazy this town was came in the summer of 1956, his rookie season with the Colts.

The team's training camp was in Westminster in those days, but the annual Blue and White scrimmage was held in Memorial Stadium.

"So I walked out on the field," he said, eyes lighting up at the memory, "and there's 48,000 people there to see a scrimmage! I've never seen that many people in my life!

"I said, 'What the hell is going on?!' And these crazy people are hollering and screaming 'Colts! Colts!' The most people I had played in front of was maybe 100 at the University of Louisville. This, 48,000 people - it absolutely astounded me!"

By dessert, he was onto a wonderful story about the time when, after guiding the Colts to the NFL Championship in 1958 and 1959, he felt he deserved a raise. He had made the princely sum of $7,000 during his rookie season, and was not making a whole lot more when he finally broached this idea of a raise to management.

"Don Kellett was our general manager," he recalled. "He said: 'Well, what do you want?' So I said: 'I want X number of dollars.' And he says: 'Jesus, Mary and Joseph, I can't talk to you about that kind of money! You gotta talk to (then-Colts owner Carroll) Rosenbloom!'

"So I went down to the Belvedere Hotel - Mr. Rosenbloom always had a suite in the hotel down there. Mr. Kellett was there, too. Mr. Rosenbloom came in and said: 'Johnnn' - he almost used to sing when he talked - 'what seems to be the problemmm between you and Mr. Kellettttt?'

"I said: 'Mr. Rosenbloom, I don't have a problem. It's Mr. Kellett who has the problem.' So Kellett says: 'Jesus Christ, Carroll, the guy wants X number of dollars! By God, we don't pay guys who spent 10 years in the league that kind of money!'

"I said: 'Wait a minute. Are you paying on the time you spend in the league or the ability to do the job?' And Rosenbloom looked at Kellett and said: 'Donnnn, I think he's gotchaaaa!' "

According to published reports years later, the "X amount of dollars" was $25,000. These days, of course, Brett Favre tips the pool boy 25 grand.

But John Unitas was always from a different era.

An era we're all going to miss.

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