NFL has laces tied too tight, banning Colt's high-top tribute


THERE THEY sat. A sporting relic in a small glass box. The pair of crumpled, black, high-top cleats Johnny Unitas wore during his last game as a Baltimore Colt.

Someone had left them on a table in the press box hours before the NFL's greatest quarterback was honored in a pre-game ceremony at Ravens Stadium yesterday. The sight of those cleats was enough to send a chill down your spine.

At least mine, anyway.

Everyone talks about that "Golden Arm," but that arm was only as good as Unitas' iron will, his competitive fire, his radar read of the defense and, yes, the feet.

Dropping back for one of those record-breaking touchdown passes; sidestepping the thick arms and swinging fists of oncoming rushers: It always starts with the feet - especially those Unitas kept encased in stiff, black leather.

The black high tops were a great symbol on a sad day - one on which Unitas, who died Wednesday at age 69, was honored with a moment of silence at NFL games across this land.

Too bad the league-approved tribute did not go far enough.

Too bad the league bailed on an opportunity to pay the kind of symbolic respect justifiable for a legend who made such an incredible contribution to the glory of the game and the league's coffers.

Too bad about the shoes.

What is the matter with the NFL?

This is not a rhetorical question. This one's for real.

What could possibly be the problem?

A young, upstanding star named Peyton Manning wanted to honor a fallen legend by wearing a pair of black high-top cleats in a game yesterday. Manning even ordered up four pairs for the game. Then, like a good boy, he called the league to ask permission to wear them.

The NFL told him no.

Imagine that. The modern incarnation of the Colts quarterback in Indianapolis - a student of the game who understands history - wanted to bridge time and memory with a small, bold gesture of love to Unitas, and the league says forget about it.

The No Fun League is now the No Fair League, too.

Worse, the NFL's refusal to allow Manning to pay homage to the original Baltimore Colt felt like a slap.

What else can you say when the league threatens a $25,000 fine, had Manning done what was in his heart?

This isn't like former Bears quarterback Jim McMahon scribbling goofy little marketing slogans across his thick, white headband for maximum Super Bowl mischief.

The bad-boy antics of McMahon were intended to tick off the higher authorities and Big Brother mentality of the NFL. All Manning wanted to do was the right thing.

What a strange concept.

"I heard about Manning. I guess they have their rules, but you look back and what [Unitas] did for the game and for Baltimore," said Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, who eschews any comparisons between his position-defining play and what Unitas did for quarterbacking, all those years ago.

There has been a small, good-natured debate these past few days about how much attention Unitas would have been comfortable receiving from friends and fans who can't believe Baltimore's greatest sporting legend is gone, and so suddenly.

The lingering shock helped take a bit of the sting out of the Ravens' 25-0 shellacking at the hands of Tampa Bay yesterday, as goodbyes to Unitas were as important as any game.

"He was the father of modern football, but his wife, Sandy, told a story this week about how John is looking down from above saying: 'What the hell's this all about?' " Ravens president David Modell said yesterday. A big part of the fuss is over a push to rename Ravens Stadium in honor of Unitas.

An online petition says the name Johnny Unitas Memorial Stadium would "give pride to the city of Baltimore, honor Mr. Unitas and his contribution to Baltimore in particular and football in general." It is a noble cause.

It is even one worthy of implementation - a matter of civic and moral obligation that marries Unitas and the old Colts with the Ravens and the new era of football in Baltimore.

Still, this is the age of Enron, PSINet and other dastardly debacles of modern greed and commerce. That mean stadiums are named after the almighty dollar - a practice that diminishes legends and history.

A humble man like Unitas likely would have avoided getting in the middle of a debate that pits megabucks against doing the right thing.

As Modell pointed out, future naming rights for Ravens Stadium means upward of $150 million in revenues. This would represent another sad twist in the Unitas biography:

A man who hustled to make a buck in his post-NFL career can't get his name on Baltimore's pro football stadium because $19 million signing bonuses must be paid for ... somehow.

You can see where this stadium-naming drive is heading. It is a debate that likely will be crushed in the Ravens' feeding frenzy for cash. It is the natural order of sports entertainment. How else did Baltimore get the NFL back again anyway?

Still, whether it is Johnny Unitas Memorial Stadium or not, black, high-top cleats for all NFL quarterbacks would have been the right move yesterday.

"He was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. I'm sure all the quarterbacks in the league felt the same way," said Ravens quarterback Chris Redman, who showed up on the field in a pair of black high tops to honor Unitas.

Unlike Manning, Redman did not seek permission.

"He was a great friend of mine and a great person and it was sad to see him missing here [yesterday]," he said. "I wanted to keep it quiet [about the cleats] and not make it a big media thing. It was personal. It meant a lot to me - not just wearing the shoes, but I was thinking about him a lot out there."

He wasn't alone.

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