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Fans turn out at Ravens game to pay respects to Colts' Unitas
The funeral for John Unitas is tomorrow, but the wake began yesterday, when the past and future of Baltimore football merged at Ravens Stadium.
The afternoon ended with a sparse crowd and a somber locker room as quarterback Chris Redman and a young Ravens team were manhandled 25-0 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The game was an emotional letdown from the solemn pre-game tribute to Unitas, the great Colts quarterback who died Wednesday of a heart attack at age 69.
Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, will preside at a funeral Mass for Unitas tomorrow morning at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on Charles Street. Seating may be limited, so many paid their respects yesterday.
"It was a fitting day for him," said Richard Sammis, an auto dealer who became a close friend of Unitas'. "It wasn't too big, and it wasn't too little, just absolutely perfect."
The day was a stark contrast to last year's home opener, which was held Sept. 9, two days before the world changed and eight months after Baltimore had won Super Bowl XXXV. Then the sun shone, the Vince Lombardi Trophy was passed around and the Ravens continued the celebration with a 17-6 victory over the Chicago Bears.
Unitas - who came to town as a castoff and led Baltimore's first National Football League team to three championships - watched that game from his customary spot, to the left of the Ravens bench. The grass in that place now has a reminder of No. 19, a spray-painted replica of his jersey that was unveiled a few minutes before kickoff by 11 members of his family, Sammis and Lenny Moore, another Pro Football Hall of Fame hero.
As a petition drive gains momentum to rename the Ravens' home "John Unitas Stadium" - a long shot in an era when naming rights fetch millions of dollars annually from corporate sponsors - fans arrived early and displayed banners and posters. Some were professionally manufactured, and others were homemade, including a sheet that hung in the northeast corner and proclaimed, "Welcome to Unitas Stadium."
A light rain began to fall at 12:30 p.m., and Unitas' widow, Sandra, entered the field with his eight children, six grandchildren and brother, Leonard. Redman, like Unitas a product of the University of Louisville, and a few teammates came over to extend their regards. The ceremony included the modern, a video that ran on the jumbo screens, and the traditional, some nostalgia courtesy of Baltimore's Marching Ravens band. It concluded with a moment of silence, which is being observed for Unitas at all NFL games this week.
The Colts flag commemorating the 1958, 1959 and 1970 world championships was displayed alongside the Ravens Super Bowl XXXV flag. Two senior members of the color guard did the honors. J.R. Rebuck, 46, who carried the Colts flag, joined the band in 1986, two years after the franchise fled for Indianapolis. When the Colts fight song was played for the first time at a Ravens game, Sandra Unitas clapped in rhythm, and some lost control.
"There were tears coming out of my eyes," said Joel White, 45, a city firefighter. "I haven't heard that song in a long time."
White wore a new T-shirt that read "Unitas We Stand: Thanks for the Memories," but others dug into their closets and pulled out caps and shirts that smelled of mothballs. Nothing was as old as the pair of Unitas' high-top cleats, encased in a glass box, that were placed on the grass alongside the jersey logo.
"If you look closely, there's sod from 33rd Street on them," said city police Sgt. Mike Baptist, accompanied by Officer David Childs, who carried the box. Childs, 41, grew up in New Jersey as a fan of the New York Giants, the team Unitas and the Colts beat in the 1958 overtime championship game, which popularized professional football.
Fans did a double take when they saw Unitas' son Chad, whose right arm was wrapped around his mother and whose left hand was extended to Moore. Chad Unitas grew his hair out as a teen, but since May he has favored the flattop that was one of his father's trademarks.
"Everyone in the family is extremely touched by the outpouring of affection that has been shown my father and us the last few days," he said. "It's been incredible."