Two families in battle over golden legacy


Standing beneath an imposing bronze figure of his father, beside the downtown football stadium that many fans lobbied hard and futilely to have renamed for his father, John C. Unitas Jr. is recalling sweet memories of his dad and the Baltimore Colts.

He's lost in a moment, but it's not a touchdown drive. No, in his mind's eye, Unitas Jr. is ball boy again for the Colts - a lad with a beeswaxed crewcut resting in the top bunk in the players' dorm at summer training camp in Westminster with his dad stretched out in the bed below.

"I never looked at my father as a celebrity. He was my father," said Unitas Jr., 47, of Unitas Sr., who died Sept. 11. "He'd spend hours at home studying film, cradling me and my sister on his lap. Dad would get a game ball from a big game, like the '59 championship or something important. We would take off with it and then go play with it out front and lose it. He didn't care. He was a great man, a great man."

Unitas Jr. adored his father, went into business with him - and is now being accused of attempting to steal from him by people who also were close to his father: his own stepmother and Unitas' second wife, Sandra, and his father's attorney and accountant. The three recently took control of the company that father and son formed in 1991 to market Unitas for promotional purposes.

Last year, the company earned almost $1 million by selling licensing rights, autographs and appearances by Unitas, his son said. The value of the legacy of the man known as "Johnny U." and the question of who will profit from it have triggered a court battle and an acrimonious public exchange of accusations. The emotional price is already heavy within Unitas' extended family.

The children of his first marriage say they didn't know their father's ashes were being laid to rest this spring until they were notified afterward - with a cemetery map showing where they could visit. They were also left out of ceremonies to announce the renaming of Towson University's stadium and 19th Street in Ocean City in their father's honor.

Unitas had five children with the former Dorothy Jean Hoelle, whom he met in high school in Pittsburgh on a bus to a school basketball game. They married in 1954. Their children are Janice, 48; John Jr., 47; Robert, 45; Christopher, 43; and Kenneth, 35. The couple divorced in 1972. She died in May 2002 at age 67, four months before her former husband.

The Colt quarterback had three children with the former Sandra Lemon, whom he met at a department store football promotion and married the day of his divorce, near the end of his career. Their children are Francis Joseph, 29, known as Joe; Chad, 24; and Alicia Ann Paige, 21, known as Paige.

The families gathered for holidays and birthdays, and the half-siblings, nearly a generation apart, referred to each other as "brothers" and "sisters." But it was a more tenuous balance than it appeared to most outsiders.

"We had a mother whose attitude was, 'He's your father no matter what happened between he and I.' We didn't go away. We were truly chips off the old block. We would not go away," said Janice Ann Unitas-DeNittis, the eldest child.

'As bad as it gets'

But now, the conflict is ugly and in sharp contrast with the image of the man.

Unitas and his team didn't merely play a game, but embodied Baltimore during the 1950s and '60s. The motto that Colts legions used to unfurl on banners at Memorial Stadium, however, might now have a sad addendum: "Unitas We Stand - in disarray."

"I've never been involved in anything like this before," said Scott Widelitz, an executive with Dreams Inc., a publicly traded sports marketing company in Florida that was negotiating to hire Unitas Jr. and sign a six-figure licensing contract when the dispute halted those talks. "This is as bad as it gets."

Sandra Unitas, attorney Charles M. Tatelbaum and accountant Howard H. Moffet took control of Unitas Management Corp. from Unitas Jr. last winter.

The three claim that the son misspent tens of thousands of dollars on personal needs as president of the company. They also allege that Unitas Sr. confided his concern about it to Moffet before he died of a heart attack at age 69.

That is a lie, says the son, who is described by many people who had business dealings with him as a fierce negotiator for and protector of his father's image.

He and his siblings also assert that their father wouldn't have hesitated to inform any of them if he was displeased with them.

Unitas Jr. said that the only assets of value Unitas Management owns were bought for his stepmother and her children at his father's request: a white, Lexus sport-utility vehicle that Sandra Unitas drives and a $170,000 townhouse in Mays Chapel where her son Chad has lived since attending Towson University.

Tatelbaum said that Unitas Jr.'s name on the deed of the townhouse indicates fraud.

Unitas Jr., who has a Realtor's license, said he signed the deed merely to gain a better interest rate than the company could as a purchaser. He has never set foot in the townhouse, he said.

Missed the big money

Although Unitas is regarded as one of the greatest players - if not the greatest - ever in football, his 17 years with the Colts preceded the era of million-dollar contracts for professional athletes. Some players today spend as much on cars as the largest contract Unitas ever signed - $250,000 with the San Diego Chargers in his final year, 1973.

His uncanny ability to read his opponent's intent on a football field seemed in inverse proportion to his ability to judge business propositions. An unfortunate array of investments, in businesses from bowling lanes to circuit boards, forced him into personal bankruptcy protection in 1991. He recovered financially, but he didn't die immensely wealthy.

The details of his estate have yet to be filed in Baltimore County, but he left two life insurance policies totaling $225,000 to be divided among Sandra Unitas and the eight grown children. Days before he died, he and Sandra sold a 20-acre estate in Baltimore County horse country for $875,000.

Unitas couldn't print money, but he came as close to it as mortal man might imagine in his later years, as the memorabilia market soared. A glossy photo of him bought for $1.50 wholesale gained about $80 in value once he signed it. A helmet with the Colts' horseshoe logo, bought for $300 wholesale, sold for twice that amount with Unitas' autograph and might sell for triple that since he died, sports marketing experts said.

Even in death, his vaunted name would be the gift that keeps giving for whoever gains the right to sell it. Although sports marketing experts said its worth depends heavily on how well the "property" is managed and promoted, some say Unitas' trademark could easily fetch $250,000 a year or more.

Babe Ruth's image generates $1 million a year, 55 years after the Baltimore-born slugger died. And an Elvis-like infatuation with auto racer Dale Earnhardt, who died in a crash two years ago, generates $20 million a year for his estate, according to a Forbes magazine poll of top-earning dead celebrities.

"It's surprising, but people are really into nostalgia," said Daniel Mantle, 43, of Dallas, who with his brother manages the license for his late father, the Yankee star. Mickey Mantle's image generates between $250,000 and $500,000 a year for inclusion on everything from corporate advertising to slot machines. "His name just gets bigger for some reason. It's flattering that people still think of him."

Unitas, likewise, presents a rare opportunity. He epitomized an era recalled for tough and gallant players - a John Wayne in hightop cleats. From an advertising perspective, his iconic persona is more valued even than his record-setting play on long-ago Sundays. A recent poll on ranked him fifth among the greatest sports heroes, behind only Jackie Robinson, Babe Ruth, Vince Lombardi and Muhammad Ali.

"People ask me, why is Babe Ruth so popular? He was someone who appealed to the everyday man. He was kind of one of them," said Pete Enfield of CMG Worldwide Inc., a prominent licensee that holds rights to Ruth, Marilyn Monroe and other deceased celebrities and which did limited work for Unitas. "There's something like that in Johnny U.'s work ethic and background and character that some company will want to identify with."

Unitas acknowledged that his timing was better in releasing a football than cashing in, quite aware that lesser talents who followed him earned much more. As his fame grew during his Colt years, he began accepting commercials and appearances for extra cash, although he thought it was difficult to make good money for such work beyond New York.

"You go to a banquet in Baltimore, and if it's not free, it's $25," he wrote in a 1965 autobiography, Pro Quarterback: My Own Story, with Ed Fitzgerald. He filmed one local commercial with his family singing for "Mary Sue Easter Eggs." He lamented that it was "the worst commercial I'd ever seen" and only provided fresh material for discontented fans who would holler, "Get Mary Sue out of there."

On comeback trail

After Unitas' career, and his emergence from $3 million in debt thanks to his Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceeding, his son crossed paths with a Washington debt-collection lawyer named Warren S. Rosenfeld. Unitas Jr., then in his 30s, was selling ads in legal publications. Rosenfeld was one of his accounts.

A discussion between them led to the formation of Unitas Management Corp. The son helped persuade his father of the wisdom of the move by pointing to the work of another attorney in Rosenfeld's building named David Falk, who was cooking up unprecedented sneaker deals for an ascending basketball star, Michael Jordan.

But the father wasn't thinking of himself, Rosenfeld recalled.

"Senior was adamant that this launch junior off on his career," the attorney said. "He was proud of junior's career in legal publishing, very proud of his get-up-and-go and that he wasn't relying on the name 'Johnny Unitas.' He felt that this was something he could do for junior to launch him to the next level of success."

With a more aggressive approach than the previous handshake deals and contracts on napkins, promotional income for Unitas tripled from less than $100,000 to $300,000 in a few years, Rosenfeld said.

The son seized on opportunities faster than before. One evening, he noticed a passing reference to his father while watching the 1990s TV hit Coach. He wrote the producers, enrolled his father in the Screen Actor's Guild and got him scripted into a later episode - with a decent payday.

The experience helped lead to Unitas cameos in the 1999 movies Any Given Sunday and Runaway Bride, and even to use of his voice and caricature in an episode of The Simpsons. The mere mention of Unitas' name in a car commercial, which contrasted him with the flashier Joe Namath, brought $75,000, said Nova Lanktree, a Chicago agent who helped arrange several national TV spots for Unitas.

The father confided to Rosenfeld that he wished his son would reach out to license even more retired stars, but Rosenfeld never doubted their bond.

"John Unitas Sr. walked on water to junior; you could see the interaction between the two," he said. "I have a hard time believing junior would have done anything to injure his dad or anyone his dad loved."

Chill sets in

But that's exactly what has been alleged almost since Unitas died Sept. 11, 2002, just as the nation mourned the first anniversary of the terrorist hijackings that killed more than 3,000 in New York, Washington and a Pennsylvania field 70 miles from his birthplace.

Last Sept. 12, Moffet, Unitas' personal accountant, phoned Saul Bashoff, who handled the books for Unitas Management. He wanted financial records that he had sought without success since spring 2002, he said.

Unitas Jr. told Bashoff he was surprised Moffet didn't already have them. He had given them to his dad to give to Moffet after his father asked for them months earlier, he said.

By October, the exchanges became more frequent and terse. Tatelbaum, whom Unitas named as his personal representative in his will with Moffet, warned the son not to "deviate from normal practices" until control of the business could be settled.

Unitas Jr., who holds 10 percent of the shares in Unitas Management, countered that he is entitled to his father's 90 percent of Unitas Management in exchange for Unitas Jr. turning over a $125,000 life insurance policy to his stepmother and her children. Unitas Jr. and his attorney, Robert R. Bowie Jr., contended that Unitas outlined such a trade in the event of his death in a "shareholder agreement" in 1992.

By December, the chill had fully blown in. Unitas Jr. flew to Louisville, Ky., to join Sandra Unitas and her family at a reception for the Golden Arm Foundation Inc., a scholarship program that Unitas initiated.

"She was acting like nothing was going on," Unitas Jr. said of his stepmother. "We were on the dais, having pictures taken with the award winners. We flew back home together. We were walking on the tarmac [at Baltimore-Washington International Airport]. I said, 'Sandy, can we sit and talk?' She just said, 'This is how your father wanted this to be.' I said, 'No, this is not how my father wanted it to be.' Chad and Paige just looked on, stunned.

"I haven't talked to her since December. Chad came to the office once. I told him, 'The only people who win here are the attorneys. I had every intention of taking care of you.' He said, 'I don't want to know anything.'"

Chad Unitas declined to comment recently.

Desperation pass

Sandra Unitas, who is 59, also declined to be interviewed, although she concurs with Tatelbaum and Moffet that her husband had expressed misgivings to Moffet about the handling of company profits.

"This all started before my husband died, and I'm sure he was doing the right thing," she said. "People know me, so I'm not worried about my reputation."

Sandra Unitas, Tatelbaum and Moffet invited Unitas Jr. and his wife, Christine, to a meeting Jan. 8 after asserting their stake in the company. Unitas Jr. didn't consider the meeting legitimate, so he and his wife did not attend. The trio met and voted him out as president. They elected Sandra Unitas as president, Moffet as secretary and Tatelbaum as assistant secretary.

Two weeks later, Unitas Jr. tried the equivalent of a football "Hail Mary" pass. He asked Sandra and her children to a dinner on "Super Bowl Sunday" at his home "without lawyers or accountants or anybody else," his invitation read. He received no reply.

On Feb. 12, Baltimore County Circuit Judge Thomas J. Bollinger Sr., ruling on a claim Tatelbaum filed in state court, upheld the right of the three to take control of the company.

The next day, Tatelbaum wrote Unitas Jr. to offer him a job as an employee of the company and asked him to propose a salary and duties for himself. Unitas Jr. considered the offer ludicrous, coming from people who were in the midst of kicking him out. He drove to his attorney's office in Towson to turn over his home-office computer and cartons of business files.

Unitas Jr. has appealed Bollinger's ruling to the Maryland Court of Special Appeals. A hearing is set for November. Another case is also wending through federal court, where Sandra Unitas, Tatelbaum and Moffet have sought Chapter 11 protection from creditors. Unitas Jr. said he hopes to get the federal case dismissed Friday.

Opportunities fading

While Unitas Jr. disputes the claim that Unitas Management is bankrupt, he acknowledges that heavy legal expenses, the death of the company's star attraction and the inability to negotiate deals during the dispute have rapidly eroded cash flow.

Some sports-marketing executives fear that opportunities available in the year after Unitas' death, with emotions highest, have been all but lost.

"John Jr. was concerned for some time about what they would do to the business. He didn't feel they managed his father's business affairs well," said Steve Spears, a Chicago attorney who earlier represented Unitas Management, referring to Tatelbaum and Moffet. "In all the time that Senior controlled the company, if he wanted Tatelbaum and Moffet to have had anything to do with it, all he had to do was to say the word. He never did.

"John Jr. is not a rich man. This business didn't make him a rich man. I have no idea how he's paying for the litigation," Spears said. "They're eating John right now. Lawyers don't come cheap. As a friend, it just breaks my heart. If his father had meant for any of this to happen, his father would have yanked the business from him long ago."

Tatelbaum, meanwhile, was arrested and accused of insurance fraud in March in Florida, where he had relocated from Baltimore years ago. He was accused of improperly claiming a former wife as his dependent for a seemingly meager health insurance claim of $5,061. He says that it is a misunderstanding and that he will be exonerated.

Tatelbaum's arrest made headlines in legal journals because of his repute in creditors' rights law. He is the principal author of Chapter 10 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code, dealing with small business, and he aided Croatia and Slovakia in implementing bankruptcy laws at the invitation of the U.S. State Department.

Tatelbaum declined to elaborate on the Unitas case outside of federal court in Baltimore, where he wore a gold lapel pin with Unitas' number, 19. He threatened "one of the largest defamation suits in a long time" against Unitas Jr. to a reporter when pressed.

Court papers shed little light on high living by Unitas Jr. that his accusers have alleged.

In fact, three of the five creditors listed in the bankruptcy claim are the law and accounting firms of Tatelbaum, Moffet and their co-counsel, with their bills totaling almost $85,000. Another $137,000 is owed to Wells Fargo and American Express, which extended lines of credit to the business.

Unitas Jr. said he was paid about $36,000 in annual salary by Unitas Management. He has other income from a commercial collection agency he runs and from selling real estate.

His father received about $85,000 to $120,000 a year from Unitas Management, he said. Both men collected tens of thousands more between them in year-end bonuses, the son said. Other expenses included $25,000 for the father's pension plan, $80,000 for his annual tax bill and a $4,000 premium on a $100,000 life insurance policy. Unitas, his eldest son said, intended the proceeds from that policy for his first five children, whom he otherwise categorically disinherited in his will.

Though the language in Unitas' will appeared unkind - "my children from my prior marriage ... shall be deemed to have predeceased me" - he found other ways to help his grown children.

Two years ago, for example, he used Unitas Management to back a loan to set up Robert, his second-oldest son, in a gas station business in Bel Air. It closed after a year.

The will, however, appears to be an indication of the simmering divisions that have boiled over since the lawsuits.

Unitas Jr. and his siblings contend they were not invited to the dedication of a site at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium where their father's ashes were spread last spring. A simple bench of polished granite inscribed with the name "Unitas" sits by a pond beneath a shade tree. It is wholly unassuming, with no mention of football exploits, in keeping with his wishes.

Sandra Unitas said that she wrote each child individually about the memorial, but Unitas Jr. felt that his note was inappropriately curt.

"John - This map will show you where your father was put to rest on May 23, 2003. Sandra," the message read, with an arrow to the father's resting place.

The official naming of the stadium at Towson University for Unitas, planned for October, also faces precarious circumstances. Although Unitas Jr. said he is pleased with the tribute, he is concerned that the university does not have a proper licensing agreement and could attempt to sell items with his father's name or likeness.

University spokeswoman Susanna Craine said the school has a general "memorandum of understanding" signed by Sandra Unitas, Tatelbaum and Moffet, but hasn't worked out details about the stadium name and has no plans for souvenir sales.

The school is aware of the dispute, she said. Towson officials asked Sandra Unitas to be an ambassador for their athletic program to fill a role that was being carved for her husband before he died.

Two victims

Unitas Jr., who resembles his father, except for a mane of silvered auburn hair more abundant than his dad's signature buzz cut, also appears direct and hotly competitive like his father, but he said he sometimes goes into his attorney's office just to cry.

"I don't know if it's ever going to end," he says, glancing at his attorney. "I don't know if I'm supposed to say this, but sometimes I don't know if I should just throw my hands up and say to the other side, 'You've won.'

"I guarantee you my father did not want this to happen," said Unitas Jr., father of a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter, the latest generation affected. "My kids know what's going on. No more birthday cards from Grandma [Sandra].

"This is a total ruination of our family. I'm victim No. 1, but I think Sandy is victim No. 2."

Raymond Berry, Unitas' favorite target as a Colts receiver, said he sensed no trouble brewing a year ago when Unitas Jr. arranged a store promotion for him, or a year earlier when John and Sandra Unitas spent several days with the Berrys at their Colorado home - "the best visit we'd had in years."

"I was surprised about it," said Berry, 70, about the family feud. "Maybe if he was here, this never would have happened."

Sun research assistant Shelia Jackson contributed to this article.

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