A few weeks ago, some fellow Pro Football Hall of Famers graced a fund-raiser for the foundation that Lenny Moore operates in honor of his late son. Art Donovan, a guy who loves salami, and Gino Marchetti, a giant who had a sandwich named for him, chewed the fat until they studied an old Baltimore Colts team photo.
"I was sitting next to Art," Marchetti said, "and he kept pointing at guys, saying, 'He's gone, he's gone, he's gone.' Then I started pointing to guys and saying 'pretty soon, pretty soon, pretty soon.' ... Thank God I had the radio off in my car when the news broke that John died. I was home when my wife heard it, and she got in hysterics. I thought someone had bombed a building, and I told her, this is just like another tower gone down."
John Unitas died last Wednesday at 69 on the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. His funeral yesterday led to an unscheduled reunion for some common men who followed him to uncommon achievement, names like Marchetti and Donovan, Raymond Berry and Jim Parker. There were other legends like John Mackey, legendary characters like Alex Hawkins, and supporting players like Jim Mutscheller and Andy Nelson who came to Baltimore and still call it home.
The old Colts feel the way the Bulls did after Michael Jordan left Chicago, minus their linchpin.
"When you have a community fabric," said Mike Curtis, the brilliant linebacker, "and you get a rip in it, you can repair it, but it always has a scar."
Unitas' death hit the second generation, the Bert Jones-Lydell Mitchell-Joe Ehrmann teams of the 1970s, just as hard.
"I was a rookie in 1971, and got to play two years with John," said Don McCauley, the rugged all-purpose back. "To me, he was like a god. I would get to offensive meetings early, and sit on his flank to see what he was writing."
Mike Barnes, a defensive lineman, came to the Colts in 1973, the year Unitas concluded his career in San Diego. A decade later, the Colts played their last game in Baltimore before Robert Irsay moved the franchise to Indianapolis, and Barnes said that Unitas and his contemporaries looked out for those left behind.
"His teams were more than kind to us," Barnes said, "especially when we all saw that the wheels were coming off [the franchise]. I'm envious of the relationship his teams had. They built something special, and we didn't get a chance to carry it forward."
Barnes, who settled in Sparks, has a construction company that has been awarded some military contracts. He came to know Dick Borbone, a decorated aviator who came from the same Pittsburgh neighborhood that produced Unitas. When Borbone came down with cancer, Barnes reconnected him with Unitas, and the two talked for hours.
Unitas also connected with the family of Jeff Charlebois, who had a promising diving career at Calvert Hall cut short in an auto accident in the late 1970s. Paul Charlebois, Jeff's father, never played a down in the NFL, but he was Unitas' racquetball partner and fortunate to be part of his inner circle.
"Jeff's a professional comedian," Charlebois said. "He was married two Saturdays ago in California, and he's paralyzed from the chest down. In the darkest moment of my life, John was there for us. He secured a private plane and arranged to fly Jeff and I to a specialist in Ohio. He didn't tell anyone. Those are the kinds of things John Unitas did."
On his drive up from Naples, Fla., Charlebois stopped in Georgia and picked up Jimmy Orr, one of Unitas' favorite targets. Dan Sullivan, one of Unitas' offensive lineman, came down from Massachusetts and recalled gestures that weren't so grand. When two of his sons attended an ice hockey camp in a Boston suburb, a bored Unitas visited Sullivan and asked if there was anything he could do, maybe cut the grass.
In the 1964 NFL championship game, the highest-scoring team in the league was shut out by the Browns, 27-0. Hawkins and Orr awoke and looked out the window of their hotel in Cleveland, saw the flags stiff from the wind off Lake Erie, and knew they were in trouble.
Unitas might not have thrown the tightest spiral, but he kept the Colts tight.