Remembering Johnny U.

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Fearing another terrorist attack on the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11, former Baltimore Colt Gino Marchetti said he "was praying all day I wouldn't hear any bad news."

But the news the former defensive lineman got when he arrived at his home in West Chester, Pa., proved his concerns were warranted for an entirely different reason.

"When I got home, my wife was saying, 'Oh no,' on the phone. I thought those bastards had blown up another building," said Marchetti, a former defensive lineman. "She told me John had died. I saw John three or four weeks ago, kidded him that he looked younger than ever."

As word spread about the death by heart attack of legendary Colts quarterback John Unitas, it struck the legendary player's former teammates and colleagues hard.

Former linebacker Stan White, who "was lucky enough to intercept a practice pass" against Unitas, left the Gilman practice field where he is an assistant coach, went to his car and cried.

Running back Lydell Mitchell, a Baltimore resident who, like White, played his rookie season during Unitas' final year with the Colts in 1972, was "shocked and devastated" upon getting the news from his wife, Jeanette, after a round of golf at the Greystone course in Parkton.

"Damn, and it's 9/11 too. The entire sports world has to be in shock," said former Colts center Buzz Nutter, 71, of La Plata. "He's the best QB I ever saw, bar none, and I played with Bobby Layne and Joe Namath."

"I spoke with his son, John Jr., at around 5 p.m., and he said his dad had had a heart attack and passed away. I felt like somebody had hit me in my chest," said longtime friend and business associate Richard Sammis, who operates Town & Country Auto Brokers in Timonium and shared office space with Unitas.

"I was with him from about 9:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. when he left and said he was going to work out, like he does almost every day," said Sammis, Unitas' friend of 25 years. "When he was leaving, he said, 'I'll be back tomorrow.' "

Earl Morrall, a teammate of Unitas' for four years until 1971, called it "a privilege to know Johnny as a competitor, teammate, roommate and friend."

To have played 12 years with Unitas, said former Colts receiver Raymond Berry, "I have to classify as the best break I ever got in my career. He was the toughest competitor you could hope for. The type of quarterback he was, the leader he was, he was totally focused on moving the ball, scoring points and winning."

Unitas was so woven into the fabric of Baltimore, ex-teammate Ordell Braase said, that it's almost impossible to think about one without the other.

"Unitas put Baltimore on the map," Braase said. "Before he came along, I think people just thought it was the halfway point between Philadephia and Washington. But then here comes that team in 1958, and suddenly it's a whole different deal."

Former Colt Sam Havrilak, whose locker was next to Unitas' for four years, said the most impressive thing about Unitas was "his kindness."

"Whenever our families would go out to dinner together, or whenever we were on the golf course, people would ask John for autographs," Havrilak said. "He never once said no."

Mitchell recalls Unitas' confidence-boosting words, when he told me: 'Kid, you know how to play,' " after a successful preseason showing.

"When someone dies, everyone says, 'Boy, he was a nice guy,' " Marchetti said. "Well, John was a helluva nice guy."

"What struck me when I first met Johnny Unitas was the aura he had around him," Havrilak said. "Some people, you look at them and you can just tell they're special. You could see that about Johnny. I'm very emotional and saddened tonight."

White's basement shrine to the Colts includes a baseball signed by Unitas and Art Donovan, along with several footballs that were signed by Unitas and several other Hall of Famers. It also features a snapshot of Unitas before the final Colts game of his career against the Buffalo Bills, when he threw his final touchdown to Eddie Hinton. White is the only other player in the photo with Unitas.

"That picture is even more important to me in light of what's happened," White said. "In all of sports, there's nobody that I know, personally, that I would hold in higher esteem for what he's done than Johnny Unitas."

Sun staff writers Edward Lee and Kevin Van Valkenburg and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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