An era passes, leaving Baltimore a different place

When former Baltimore Colts great and Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas died yesterday of an apparent heart attack, so did an era in Baltimore when a professional athlete embodied the spirit and passion of a city.

Unitas was so Baltimore, and Baltimore was so Unitas.

When he was the leader of one of the NFL's most storied franchises here from 1956 though 1972, every kid who played quarterback in this town - in sandlot, high school or college - was named Unitas. The receivers changed, but never the quarterback.

There had to be tears shed last night when they broke out the old Colts films around the country. We adored the man, and all his characteristics - the sloping shoulders, the crew cut, the black high-top cleats and the piercing look.

Unitas to Berry. Unitas to Orr. Unitas to Mackey. Unitas to Moore. He made Sundays so special.

But even more than the great arm that put up 40,239 yards and won back-to-back NFL titles in 1958 and 1959, Unitas was loved throughout this city because he was one of us, a common man with a strong, blue-collar work ethic who said exactly what was on his mind.

Simply put, Unitas had guts. He was the NFL's ultimate tough guy. He was also the perfect Baltimore hero, an underachiever who played with a chip on his shoulder.

"John Unitas was the best quarterback ever," said Ernie Accorsi, the New York Giants general manager and one of Unitas' closest friends. "He was direct, and he expected you to be direct. If you crossed him, then there was trouble. He was in a class by himself as a quarterback. The rest can go in any order - Otto Graham, John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana. They may have all had a little more than John in some ways as far as arm strength or physical attributes, but John Unitas won with what was in his stomach."

Ravens owner Art Modell said: "You could never get to John Unitas as a football player, and you never thought life could get to him, either."

Maybe we were all lulled into that falsehood. Unitas, 69, pulled off more miracles than the ancient prophets. If he had walked on water, no one in Baltimore would have been surprised. He was our miracle worker, the master of the two-minute offense. With Unitas, we either won or suffered a temporary setback.

There will never be an athlete in this town to match his presence. We loved watching his bowlegged walk to the line of scrimmage, because no one could bring as much confidence as Unitas.

"When you think of Baltimore, you think of John Unitas," said Ravens senior vice president Ozzie Newsome.

"This is a tremendous loss, especially here in the hometown he adopted and made better with his community efforts," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "His presence in Baltimore and in the history of the NFL is unmatched."

But Unitas' era is gone from the NFL. The salary cap has created a rent-a-player mentality. Players are drafted, and just when they become quality players and citizens, they move on to richer ground. But Unitas never betrayed us. He went to San Diego briefly to close out his career, but no one really cared, because we all knew the prodigal son would eventually come back home.

We knew Pittsburgh was his native town, but Baltimore was his adopted home. He lived here during the offseason and had restaurants and freight hauling and numerous other businesses in Baltimore. Unitas was known for the tough persona, but Baltimore stole his heart.

His friends say he cried in private when owner Robert Irsay moved the Colts to Indianapolis in 1984. He always had harsh words for Irsay afterward, and he never appeared in Indianapolis for any Colts functions. When it was announced the Cleveland Browns were going to move here in 1996, one of the first people to greet Modell was Unitas.

He gave out the ball for the inaugural game. Jim Harbaugh gave Unitas the game ball when the Ravens beat the Colts, 38-31, in their first meeting here in 1998. Unitas was often on the sidelines for Ravens games.

"We were certainly not the most lovable characters at the time," Modell said. "The Colts came from a different era. They could have resented us coming here trying to take away their legacy. But the Jim Mutschellers, Lenny Moores, the Art Donovans, they gave us a big, big welcome. John Unitas, he was one of the first to reach out to us."

Unitas and the Colts began turning professional football into the nation's No. 1 sport with the sudden-death overtime win against the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game on national television.

"I have to go by Yankee Stadium on the way home, but every Dec. 28, I would call John up on the cell phone," said Accorsi, who often dined with Unitas on Thanksgiving Day. "I'd say, I just went by the Concourse Plaza Hotel where John Unitas had to wake up to meet his destiny.

"John really never knew how big he was when he played," said Accorsi, a Colts assistant public relations director in the 1970s. "He had that typical Western Pennsylvania working man's mentality. Hospitals would request him, and he would say, 'Why do they want me?' I would say, 'John, don't you understand how big you are?' "

But he would always go.

Yesterday, former teammates wept upon hearing of Unitas' death. Friends and former players recounted how Unitas would spend endless hours at charitable events. Jim Phillips, the longtime director of the Colt Corrals, recalled how Unitas would appear at yearly bull roasts and cookouts.

That might command a fee of a couple thousand dollars these days. Unitas did it for free.

Everyone who ever played with him or watched him play in Baltimore seems to have a Unitas story.

"In 1966 or 1967 against the Bears, John Unitas broke his nose, and he refused to come out," said formers Colts kicker and lineman Lou Michaels. "He wouldn't even tell anybody. That's the kind of guy he was.

"He would walk into a huddle, tell the linemen to block, and 'I'll win the game for you.' He would say, 'I'm not bragging, but that's just the way it is.'

"Tough guy on the field, but big heart off of it," said Michaels, starting to cry. "He was very simple, very straightforward. No matter what I asked him to do, he would do it. If a kid asked him for an autograph, John would go out of his way to get it done."

Vince Bohn, 42, a salesman at Finch Services in Baltimore, recalled trying to be one of those kids.

"I was 8 years old, standing outside of Gill Gymnasium at Western Maryland College waiting for him to come out," Bohn said. "He comes out, and all of these 10-, 11-, 12-year-olds are screaming in his face. I don't get an autograph because I was in awe. I froze up."

Phillips said: "The first game I ever saw in Baltimore we were losing 13-10 to Detroit, and he pulled it out with two minutes left. You were always sure he was going to bring you back in the last couple of minutes. Recently, you'd see him on the sidelines at Ravens game. Even if the guy was 200 years old, and you had met him six, eight, 10 or 12 times, you'd still feel as though he was still playing."

Maybe the most fitting tribute to Unitas came during his last game in Baltimore. On Dec. 3, 1972, Unitas threw a 63-yard touchdown pass to Eddie Hinton. Early in the fourth quarter, a plane flew overhead with a banner trailing that read: "Unitas we stand!"

The noise was deafening as Unitas drew a standing ovation.

Almost 30 years later, we're still standing, still honoring the greatest sports hero in Baltimore history.