Special talent, regular guy


Johnny Unitas' football life was remarkable, a royal blare of records, championships and honors. His life after football was another matter, grounded in the touchstones of normalcy more familiar to those who cheered for him.

Like a lot of former players, and for that matter, a lot of people, he experienced ups and downs with his health, money and business career as he raised two sets of kids, mowed the lawn, played golf, had some laughs and valued his time with his family and friends.

One of pro football's all-time greats was an everyman once he put away his uniform, and to know him well was to know that the contradiction didn't bother him. In fact, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"He viewed himself as an average person," said Lee Stotsky, a Baltimore sales manager who played golf and ate lunch with Unitas for more than three decades. "I went a lot of places with John and saw him interact with many people, and the guy who had flash and a lot of money, that didn't impress him. That wasn't his thing. He related more to the average guy.

"In fact, that's what he wanted, just to be one of the guys.

"I don't think he liked celebrity, to be honest. As long as I knew him, we almost never talked about football. What he had done on the field, what everyone else thought was so great, to him, it was just his job. He didn't really think it was special."

Clearly, two elements were responsible for Unitas' common-man perspective, which was as steadfast as his will in the last two minutes of a close game. Born in 1933, he was raised in a working-class family in Pittsburgh during the Depression; his father, a coal deliveryman, died when he was 5, and his mother worked two jobs to raise four kids. Then, later, like many in his football generation, Unitas missed out on the big money that today's players earn, consigning him to a workingman's life instead of one of wealthy seclusion in a gated community on a golf course.

Though he yearned for more, he was satisfied with his lot and never developed the sense of entitlement and superiority so prevalent among today's athletes.

"For all he had accomplished in his career, he just did not have the aura of someone who felt he was more important than you," said Wayne Edwards, the athletic director at Towson University, where Unitas had recently began working part-time as a fund-raiser and consultant before his sudden death Wednesday of a heart attack. "Whenever we spoke, he acted as if I was the only person he needed to talk to that day."

Unitas and his second wife, Sandra, whom he married in 1973, lived for many years in a large colonial house on a 19-acre farm in Baldwin. They raised their three children, Joe, Chad and Paige, and also tended to a few cows and goats.

"It was a big, beautiful, old farmhouse. John would get on a tractor and cut the grass himself," said Richard Sammis, the Baltimore car dealer known as "Mr. Nobody," who was one of Unitas' longtime friends.

"Sometimes you'd get there and John would be out in the barn shoveling the poop," said Linda Miller, an account manager at a Timonium headhunting firm who worked in the same building as Unitas and became a close friend.

Business is bumpy

Though he could hardly take a step around town without being accosted by smiling strangers eager to share their football memories, Unitas spent his days just as many of his fans did, working to make a buck. His road was seldom smooth. Many of his business ventures lost money and he hit bottom in 1991, declaring bankruptcy when an electronics firm he had started with partners was unable to pay its bills.

Other failed businesses that Unitas oversaw through the years included a chain of bowling establishments, a prime-rib restaurant and an air freight company. His dabble in Florida real estate turned out to include swampland.

"He had faith in his fellow man and a tendency to trust people until he found out he shouldn't," Stotsky said. "The reality is he got taken a few times."

Though always able to extricate himself and somehow make ends meet, he never hit the business home run. His last full-time job was with a national electronics firm that had an office in Timonium; he was a vice president until he parted ways with the company last year.

"He had good times and bad times, good luck and bad luck. It wasn't smooth, to say the least," Sammis said. "But it never bothered him. You never heard him say, 'Aw, it's too much.' He just figured out a way to keep going."

The same was true with his health. He had both knees replaced, underwent heart bypass surgery in 1993 and dealt with a spate of injuries and conditions dating to his football days, most prominently the almost total loss of the use of his right hand due to a nerve condition. He submitted to several procedures to try to regain function, experiencing little success, and sought disability payments from the NFL, to no avail. Through it all, he seldom complained.

"Not once, actually, as far as I heard," Sammis said. "His hand was a real problem, but instead of complaining about it, he just shrugged and said, 'Well, it is what it is,' and figured out how to live with it. He learned how to play golf with it and how to write a beautiful autograph with his other hand. That was John."

Indeed. Famed for his no-nonsense demeanor on the sidelines and in the huddle, he had the same approach to life after football. You played the cards you were dealt. You dealt in what was real. You didn't put on airs. You didn't live in the past. What was the point in that?

It was funny, in a way: While the town around him reveled in its sports past, its greatest athlete could pretty much take or leave any walk down memory lane.

It was a walk he seldom took.

Though he stood on the sidelines at the Ravens' home games, eliciting cheers every week, he didn't do it for the attention; he was giving the new team in town his tacit endorsement, fully understanding its importance.

Living in the present, not in the past.

"He couldn't, for the life of him, understand what the fuss over memorabilia was about," Stotsky said. "He'd say, 'Why do people collect that stuff? Who cares?' "

And his own fame?

"He appreciated it, but truthfully, he didn't dwell on it," Miller said. "We never talked about football. We talked about life, families, other things. He was always looking ahead, never behind."

Miller, 42, worked a floor away from Unitas in Timonium and was warmly conscripted into a lunch group with Stotsky, 59, and Unitas, who was 69 when he died. They celebrated each other's birthdays and called with the latest jokes. Miller ushered Unitas into the computer world a few years ago, helping him purchase a unit and then teaching him how to use e-mail and the Internet.

"I could walk into John and Sandy's house in Baldwin without ringing the doorbell, just yell, 'Hey, it's me,' and they'd shout, 'Oh, come in, have you had lunch?' " Miller said. "I felt the most at home there that I'd ever felt anywhere. I felt so comfortable, so at ease that I could be myself. That was how they lived."

Unitas and his wife had just sold the farmhouse and moved to a townhouse in Timonium when he died.

A charitable spirit

He traded on his famous name mostly to help various causes, appearing at charity functions, golf outings and card shows benefiting others. He tended to back causes that friends and family supported, such as a nonprofit agency called Take Back Our Streets, which was affiliated with the Anne Arundel County police when his son, Kenneth, was on the county's police force in the '90s.

Unitas' own charity foundation, managed by his eldest son, John Jr., is a low-key enterprise that sponsors scholarships and a Heisman Trophy-style award honoring the best quarterback in college football.

"I do a lot of [charity] functions and I asked him to do a lot, and he never turned me down," Stotsky said.

Such days were among Unitas' favorites with their blend of golf, friends and laughs, all things he treasured.

"The public thought he was a man of few words, but they never heard him get on a roll with his dark sense of humor," Stotsky said.

But his favorite days were those spent with family. The great quarterback was no different from any father in that regard. He was as devoted to the five children from his first marriage, which ended in the early '70s, as he was to the three children he had with Sandra.

"He was just a huge family man, took great pride in his children - both sets," Stotsky said.

Kenneth was on the ballot in a Republican state senate primary in Harford County this year. Unitas campaigned for him.

"Kenneth was very nervous about the race. John just said, 'If the good Lord means for him to win, he'll win,' " Miller said.

Kenneth, 34, was defeated Tuesday.

Another son, Chad, 23, played on the golf team at Towson.

"John came to watch Chad as often as he could," Edwards said. "He was just another father of a student-athlete. He participated in the family events and never tried to tell the coach what to do. I've never met a man of that stature and accomplishment who was more humble."

Unitas' youngest child, Paige, is a student at Towson.

'He was special'

His last public appearance was at the opening of Towson's refurbished football stadium Sept. 5. As always, his fans took him back to his football days, and he went along for the ride with a wave.

"We chatted on the sidelines that night. He looked like a million bucks," former Colts teammate Lenny Moore said. "I said, to him, 'You're lookin' good.' He said, 'I'm trying to hang in there, Spud.' During the introductions, they called his name last, he walked out there nonchalant, the place went crazy."

Stotsky and Miller each saw him six days later, within hours of his death.

"That morning, I gave him some mail that had gathered at his old office in my building," Miller said. "We spoke for about 10 minutes in the parking lot. He said, 'Well, I have to go to Bel Air and film a commercial.' That was it."

Stotsky visited with him that afternoon at his office in Sammis' dealership. Sammis was giving Unitas space to work.

"I had a jersey for John to sign for a friend, had to be the last thing he signed," Stotsky said. "Then he got his stuff together and headed off to the [health] club."

Within an hour, Unitas had suffered a heart attack and died.

"A lot of people knew of John or had met him once at a signing event or a restaurant or bar, and he was always gracious," Stotksy said. "I was fortunate to get to know him quite well, and as I sit here now, I can't think of one negative thing to say about him. He was special. I feel fortunate that I got to enjoy his fellowship and friendship. Goodness, how I'm going to miss him."

Sun staff writer Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad