A legend in his own town

Sun Staff

Amid the quiet elegance of McCafferty's restaurant in Mount Washington,near the baby grand piano polished to a high gloss, they have built a shrineto Johnny Unitas.

Hanging on the wall is the Hall of Fame quarterback's autographed Coltsjersey, an oil painting of him barking signals at the line of scrimmage withthat familiar, round-shouldered stoop, another painting of him dropping backto pass against the Buffalo Bills. There is also a photograph of him acceptingthe 1971 Super Bowl trophy with all the solemnity of a priest accepting acommunion chalice.

Not 10 feet away on this rainy weekday afternoon, John Unitas sits sippinga Jack Daniel's and Coke, having graciously accepted a luncheon invitationfrom a reporter with the local fishwrap.

Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, even for the quarterbackmany consider the greatest to ever play the game. The quid pro quo here isthat the reporter gets to pick John Unitas' brain on Baltimore's new NFL team,the former Cleveland Browns, and their owner Art Modell, who, until Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem and Dennis Rodman wiggedout and head-butted that referee, was the whipping boy for the national mediaand sports fans.

Right now, however, John Unitas has been asked what it feels like to be alegend in this town, the embodiment of the glory years of the late '50s andearly '60s, when the Colts played in three league championship games, elevatedthe image of the NFL from that of a Podunk league, and won the hearts of anentire city.

Of this legend business, he tells this story: Not long ago, he foundhimself at BWI airport with time to kill. So he bought a newspaper and headedto one of the lounges to grab a beer.

As he walked in, a voice next to him cried: "Brooks!"

Mr. Unitas paid no attention, but the voice persisted: "Brooks! Brooks Robinson!" And when John Unitas looked up, a man was smiling and waving athim.

By now, of course, there was every reason to suspect he was in thepresence of that most annoying of all celebrity hangers-on: the certified nutcase.

"Are you talking to me?" Mr. Unitas said. "I'm not Brooks Robinson."

"Bull-- !" the guy said sweetly. "You're Brooks Robinson! I just spentlast weekend with you down at the Eastern Shore."

Well. At this point, most of us in Mr. Unitas' situation would be edgingtoward the exit and motioning for the bartender to call security.

But Mr. Unitas kept his cool, even when the man persisted and demanded tosee his driver's license.

When it was produced, the man examined it and said: "God damn! You're notBrooks Robinson! Well, do you play golf? Why don't you come down to NorthCarolina and we'll play some golf?"

At this, John Unitas throws back his head and laughs, a boyish laugh thatseems to fill the room and vibrate back to the piano, where a couple of fansare visiting his shrine.

This May, hard as it is to believe, John Unitas turns 63. A survivor of 18years in pro football, he's had celebrated financial troubles, two total kneereplacements and suffered a heart attack three years ago. But his face islargely unlined, and when he shakes your hand he has the grip of a blacksmithif they even have blacksmiths anymore.

These days, he's an executive vice president with Matco Electronics, anupstate New York company that designs high-tech circuit boards. He's also atraveling spokesman for Merck Pharmaceuticals and its Benign ProstateAwareness Program, which urges men over the age of 50 to undergo an annualprostate exam.

As the most celebrated of the old Colts, he's excited about Baltimore'snew football team. Still, it takes him back to the cold, gray morning in 1984when he turned on the television and discovered Bob Irsay had packed up histeam as though it were so much Tupperware and moved it to Indianapolis in themiddle of the night.

"To hear we're getting an NFL team after all these years " he says, voicetrailing off. "I've always felt Baltimore was raped, basically, by [formergeneral manager] Joe Thomas and Irsay. Baltimore always deserved to have afranchise, because in the years we were here, it was always a franchise tolook up to."

He doesn't think much of Art Modell's attempts to buy the Colts' name backfrom the Irsays; vice president and general manager Jim Irsay was recentlyquoted as saying it would take a figure around $25 million, which most sanepeople would demand only if wearing a ski mask and waving a gun.

"The word greed stands right out on his forehead " John Unitas says."Look, let's start with a brand new name. That era is over with. Let's allowthe Colts name to stand for what it stands for at this point."

Giddy from three iced teas, the reporter begins tossing out proposednicknames, inviting John Unitas to engage in a little free association whilehoping the whole exercise is not too West Coast.


He makes a face like there's a hair in his soup.


"That's not supposed to be, uh, [politically] correct, is it?"

"I like Americans," the reporter says.

There is silence, the kind of silence where you start counting the packsof sugar and Sweet 'n Low. John Unitas decides this is a perfect time to goback to his soup.

"I've heard Railers and Mustangs," he says at last. "If they want tomaintain some kind of continuity with horses, then Mustangs would probably bethe one."

This is something less than a ringing endorsement, but of one thing he hasno doubt: The new football team will be huge in this city.

"This is a great NFL town," he says. "Look at past history [with theColts]. And [these] people have always supported the Orioles tremendously.There's just a big faction of people here who are football-oriented and havestayed close to the game with the hope there would be an NFL franchise comingback here."

John Unitas says his first indication of what a great football town thiswas came in the summer of 1956, his rookie season with the Colts.

The team held training camp in Westminster back then, but the annual Blueand White scrimmage was in Memorial Stadium. All seats were priced at $1, withthe money earmarked for the police boys' clubs.

"So I walked out on the field," he says, voice growing low for dramaticeffect, "and there's 48,000 people there to see a scrimmage! I've never seenthat many people in my life! I said: 'What the f-- is going on?' And thesecrazy people are hollering and screaming 'Colts! Colts!'

"The most people I had played in front of was maybe 100 at the Universityof Louisville. This, 48,000 people it just absolutely astounded me! For ascrimmage!"

As his grilled chicken sandwich arrives, John Unitas reveals that as arookie with the Colts, he earned the magnificent sum of $7,000, this in theera before unions and hard-line agents with cellular phones permanentlyattached to their ears.

But after having three terrific seasons and guiding the team to the NFLchampionship in 1958 and 1959, John Unitas felt deserving of a raise an ideahe decided to pass along to management.

"Don Kellett was our general manager," he recalls. "He said 'Well, what doyou want?' So I said: 'I want X number of dollars.' And he says: 'Jesus, Maryand Joseph, I can't talk to you about that kind of money! You gotta talk to[then-Colts' owner Carroll] Rosenbloom.'

"So I went down to the Belvedere Hotel Mr. Rosenbloom always had a suitein the hotel down there. Mr. Kellett was there, too. Mr. Rosenbloom came inand said, 'Johnnnn' he almost used to sing when he talked 'what seems to bethe problemmmm between you and Mr. Kelletttt?'

"I said: 'Mr. Rosenbloom, I don't have a problem. It's Mr. Kellett who hasthe problem.' So Kellett says: 'Jesus Christ, Carroll, the guy wants X numberof dollars! By God, we don't pay guys who spent 10 years in the league thatkind of money!'

"I said: 'Wait a minute. Are you paying on the time you spend in theleague or the ability to do the job?' And Rosenbloom looked at Kellett andsaid: 'Donnnn, I think he's gotchaaaa!' "

According to published reports years later, the "X amount of dollars" was$25,000, which is about how much Michael Jordan presses into the hands of abellhop in a single week.

Like the average fan, John Unitas expresses amazement at the multimilliondollar salaries of some NFL players. The most he made in pro football came atthe end of his career, when he earned $250,000 a year in 1973 and 1974 afterhaving been sold to the San Diego Chargers.

Not too long ago, a reporter for an out-of-town paper asked him how muchhe'd be worth if he were playing today. The old quarterback looked thereporter straight in the eye and said, "$10 million a year."

When the quote is repeated to him at McCafferty's, he smiles softly andgoes back to his food.

The grilled chicken sandwich, he says, is excellent.

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