Mourning a great athlete and a great human being


HE HAD, one observer noted, "the cool sangfroid of the card sharp." Such has been noted of one John Constantine Unitas, the Baltimore Colts quarterback who died suddenly of a heart attack in the middle of a day Baltimoreans had already set aside for mourning.

A year to the day after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Americans across the nation took moments to remember the 3,000 or so who died in the attacks. About 3 that afternoon, Unitas was working out in a rehab center when he collapsed and died.

The encomiums quickly followed. "Absolutely the best quarterback who ever played pro football," opined Jim Mutscheller, the tight end who caught a surprise Unitas pass at the New York Giants' one-yard line in the classic 1958 National Football League championship game. That was the contest that would become known as "the greatest game ever played," the one that put the NFL on the map and started the American love affair with professional football that shows no sign of abating 44 years later.

Johnny Sample, a defensive back on that 1958 Colts squad, agrees with Mutscheller. Sun columnist Michael Olesker quoted former Colts tackle Art Donovan as saying Unitas was the toughest of all the old crew. Other Sun reporters and columnists - Mike Preston, John Eisenberg, Paul McMullen, Ken Murray - wrote of their memories in Thursday's paper.

I have no poignant observations to make. Yes, at one time I believed that the phrase "Unitas to Berry" was indeed the most sacred in American lingo. Yes, I've spent many a Sunday looking at the Baltimore Ravens offense and reminding myself that it didn't exactly make me forget the names Unitas, Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Alan Ameche, Jimmy Orr, John Mackey or Willie Richardson.

Yes, I felt that in an era of great ones - Bart Starr, Sonny Jurgensen, John Brodie, Y.A. Tittle - Unitas was the best of the best among quarterbacks. But what is it I'll remember most about Unitas? It's the mustard on the nose.

You will, I suspect, get the feeling some kind of explanation is in order. This one starts back in the summer of 1966.

I was in a summer enrichment program at what was then Booker T. Washington Jr. High. (Summer enrichment programs were for the supposedly "academically gifted," as opposed to compulsory summer school for those who had flunked a course during the year. In truth, all summer school programs were the city's way of telling parents "Let us take your annoying, bratty kids off your hands for the summer." But I digress.)

By the summer of 1966 I was a diehard Colts fan. The previous season had seen us robbed of the Western Division title and a shot at revenge against the Cleveland Browns, who, I'm convinced, had used voodoo and other chicanery to shut out my beloved Horseshoe Heroes in the 1964 NFL championship game.

The Colts went into Week 12 of the 1965 season leading the Western Conference with a 9-1-1 record. Then Unitas was injured in a game against the Chicago Bears, a team I couldn't stand then and spurn now. Backup quarterback Gary Cuozzo was injured the next week against the Green Bay Packers. When the season ended, the Packers and the Colts had to play a tie-breaker.

On one play Colts defensive tackle Billy Ray Smith hammered Packers back-up quarterback Zeke Bratkowski and sacked him. One ref called a face-mask penalty and then, realizing no such infraction had occurred, changed the call to unnecessary roughness. The Pack went on to win in overtime.

I figured in 1966 the Colts would right this grave injustice, so you can imagine how I felt when the folks who ran the summer enrichment program trundled a bunch of us onto buses to visit the team's training camp at Western Maryland (now McDaniel) College.

A group of kids stood waiting for autographs as droves of Colts emerged from the dining hall. One went into a long peroration about the uselessness of autographs and what a pain we kids were to ask for them. I remember him not. He was that insignificant.

Then Unitas came strolling along, with that classic slope-shouldered walk of his. He was smiling as he approached. He looked at each kid, smiled as he signed each autograph and then walked out of sight. He never said a word. I remember he had a touch of mustard on his nose that he must have inadvertently left there when eating his meal.

So the truly great player, the Hall of Famer, the one hailed as the greatest, took a few moments out to indulge a few kids while the player in no one's Hall of Fame or record book acted like an idiot.

Anyone wondering why Baltimoreans so cherish Unitas can learn much from the "mustard on the nose" tale.

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