A legend in his own town

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 shrine to Johnny Unitas.

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

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

Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, even for the quarterback many consider the greatest to ever play the game. The quid pro quo here is that 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 wigged out and head-butted that referee, was the whipping boy for the national media and sports fans.

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

Of this legend business, he tells this story: Not long ago, he found himself at BWI airport with time to kill. So he bought a newspaper and headed to 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 at him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He doesn't think much of Art Modell's attempts to buy the Colts' name back from the Irsays; vice president and general manager Jim Irsay was recently quoted as saying it would take a figure around $25 million, which most sane people 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 allow the Colts name to stand for what it stands for at this point."

Giddy from three iced teas, the reporter begins tossing out proposed nicknames, inviting John Unitas to engage in a little free association while hoping 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 packs of sugar and Sweet 'n Low. John Unitas decides this is a perfect time to go back to his soup.

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

This is something less than a ringing endorsement, but of one thing he has no doubt: The new football team will be huge in this city.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Don Kellett was our general manager," he recalls. "He said 'Well, what do you want?' So I said: 'I want X number of dollars.' And he says: 'Jesus, Mary and 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 suite in the hotel down there. Mr. Kellett was there, too. Mr. Rosenbloom came in and said, 'Johnnnn' he almost used to sing when he talked 'what seems to be the problemmmm between you and Mr. Kelletttt?'

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

"I said: 'Wait a minute. Are you paying on the time you spend in the league or the ability to do the job?' And Rosenbloom looked at Kellett and said: '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 a bellhop in a single week.

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

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

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

The grilled chicken sandwich, he says, is excellent.