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A role model on the sidelines as much as a star on the field


ON WEEKENDS like this one, when the pageant of high school football is in full splendor, I have grown accustomed to seeing Johnny Unitas, standing on the sidelines, rooting for his kin.

This does not put me in exclusive company. Rather, if you listen to the tributes being offered around town after Unitas died Wednesday from a fatal heart attack at the age of 69, it sounds as if there are few folks in this community who have not bumped into him at some dusty field where kids were playing football.

It says a lot about what kind of town Baltimore is and what kind of man Unitas was, that on any given fall weekend, you might see the fellow who just may be the greatest quarterback in the history of the game, strolling along the edges of some little-noticed contest cheering on his charges.

He had eight children by two marriages. He was a great sideline dad. Unlike some sideline dads - I am thinking of myself, here - who have the tendency to holler "advice" to the coaches or referees, the Unitas I saw was a model of decorum. He watched and offered encouragement but never seemed to complain about a call or second-guess a strategy.

Just to be sure, I called Brian Abbott, who along with Mitch Tullai, coached two of Unitas' sons, Joey and Chad, when they played football at St. Paul's, the Brooklandville boys' school where my sons have played football and where a Unitas grandson is on the junior varsity squad this fall.

"If any guy could have yelled and screamed and told me what to do, it would have been him," said Abbott, who is now head football coach at Loyola high school. "He didn't. He never pushed. He never gave advice unless asked. I didn't shy away from asking, "Hey, Johnny what do you think?" He would say, 'keep throwing the football.'"

Even after his sons were long gone from St. Paul's, Unitas would show up, unannounced, and unassuming on the sidelines, Abbott said. "He loved watching high school football, he looked at it as the purest form of the game," Abbott said.

It is easy to see why. As a father of a high school senior, this fall I am savoring the color, the grunt and grind, the slice of life that is high school football. I watch the milling crowd of teen-agers, some brightly painted, some not. I compare notes with clusters of parents, some proud, some anxious, all of us drawn to drama on the field.

Sometimes the action lags. Balls bounce off helmets and hands, tackles are missed, fumbles happen. Once a few years ago during a game played at John Carroll in Harford County, I saw the band get its team a penalty. Musical harassment, I guess. But other times, there are spectacular catches, solid hits, dramatic runs. High school football is uneven, and so is life.

High school football also requires the players to work hard, a notion that appeals to parents. Like a lot of contact sports, it carries the risk of injury, a fact that makes parents apprehensive.

"Nice job!" I heard a mom yell not long ago as she watched her son make a strong tackle. Then, in almost a whisper, she added, "Now just get up, please."

They do get up, most of the time. Then they grow up and charge off to new adventures, leaving us with autumnal memories.

I have one such memory from a game played about four years ago at Archbishop Curley High School in East Baltimore. Unitas was there. One of his sons might have been helping coach the St. Paul's quarterbacks. Or he might just have shown up to see a football game.

It had been cloudy day, but at the end of the game, as players lumbered off the field, a strong sun broke and two things happened. First, sunshine struck the sweat-drenched players and steam began to roll off their uniforms. Secondly, a Curley mom, a mere wisp of a woman, spotted Unitas.

She made a beeline for her son, who was an enormous, mud-splattered lineman, playing his final high school season. This kid, who had been pushing around another behemoth all afternoon, was putty in the hands of his mother. She grabbed him by the belt of his football pants, pulled him toward Unitas, and asked the great quarterback if he would, please, pose for a snapshot with her little boy. Unitas obliged.

It was quite a scene, the muddy kid with steam rolling off his uniform, the smiling legend, and the proud parent clicking the camera.

This weekend similar snapshots are being pulled out of scrapbooks all around Baltimore and, I suspect, similar sideline stories are being retold.

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