Johnny Unitas, the greatest Colt of them all, said this week he really couldn’t give a flying horseshoe who wins Sunday’s AFC championship game in Pittsburgh.
“I’ll probably watch some of it because the kids will have it on,” Unitas said. “But there won’t be any feelings one way or the other.”
Unitas’ rooting interests, it would seem, should be clearly defined: The Steelers drafted Unitas in the ninth round of the 1955 NFL draft and then cut him before the start of the season; the Colts put him to work, and he went on to set 22 club records.
“You’re asking me about Indianapolis,” Unitas said. “I played for Baltimore.”
Unitas, forever No. 19 for anyone familiar with football, is pictured and his storied career chronicled on Page 106 of the Indianapolis Colts’ 1995 official media guide, but as far as the Hall of Fame quarterback is concerned, it is misplaced.
“It doesn’t belong there,” Unitas said. “Those things should be left in Baltimore, and when we get another team, the great things that Lenny Moore, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti and people like Arthur [Donovan] did can all become part of the Baltimore tradition again.
“The tradition is in Baltimore. There is no reason for any of us who played for Baltimore to be with Indianapolis. They have never invited me there with a personal invitation, but if they had, I would have said, ‘Thank you, but no thanks.’
“The Colts’ name belongs in Baltimore just like the Rams’ name belongs in Los Angeles. If the commissioner had any power whatsoever, he would petition the owners to vote in that fashion. . . .
“What I think is important is for Baltimore to have a franchise. It’s important for the NFL too. Baltimore was one of the dominating teams in the NFL, one that helped the NFL to gain the prominence that it has.”
Unitas played more seasons for the Colts--17--and more games--221--than any player in the franchise’s history. He holds the Colt record for playing in 10 Pro Bowls and set an NFL record with a touchdown pass in 47 consecutive games.
But when owner Robert Irsay pulled the Colts out of Baltimore in the middle of a snowy night in 1984, Unitas said, they were no longer a part of his life.
“He felt he had a better opportunity, but I didn’t like the way he mistreated the people,” said Unitas, who lives outside Baltimore and is vice president of a high-tech electronics company. “They raped the city, raped the team. The whole thing was just a dirty, dirty deal.
“I’m sure he left because he outlived his usefulness here. Nobody liked him. He destroyed the team along with [then-General Manager] Joe Thomas. Thomas is the guy who did everything, and Irsay just sat around doing nothing about it.”
Running back Tom Matte, who played in place of an injured Unitas in an NFL Western Division playoff game against Green Bay in 1965, said he and Unitas tried to get their records “expunged from the Indianapolis record books.”
“Hey, the management there treats the alumni like dogmeat. There’s no class at all,” Matte said. “When I sign autographs, I don’t just sign Colts, I sign Baltimore Colts. The only thing that franchise has done for me is forward my mail to my address. Otherwise, I’ve never heard from them. There was a time there when they were even passing out the retired numbers to new players until Pete Rozelle put a stop to it.”
Matte, who has been working with the Baltimore Stallions of the Canadian Football League, said he “usually roots against the Colts.”
“But really I have nothing against those players. I know Jim Harbaugh, and I went to high school with his mother. I wish them well, but I still have animosity toward Irsay, and Joe Thomas for tearing down a dynasty in a matter of two years. . . . Here’s the thing, Indianapolis deserves their own records.”
The Colts have retired seven jerseys, but the players who wore them have shunned the team since the move to Indianapolis. John Steadman, who covered the Colts for the Baltimore Sun, said, “I wonder how they would be accepted back here if one of them went back to Indianapolis for something, even something like a golf tournament.”
When tight end John Mackey was scheduled to receive his Hall of Fame ring, Matte said, he made it clear he didn’t want to get it in Indianapolis: “Mackey said, ‘I’d rather get my ring in a bar in Baltimore eating crabs than be in Indianapolis.’
“That’s the feeling of the guys. I keep in touch with most of them, and I don’t know of anyone who has gone back there for something to do with the Colts. Listen, when Indianapolis came to New York a few years ago to play the Giants or Jets, the Colts put on this thing celebrating the ’58 championship game. Unitas didn’t even get an invitation.”
A Colt spokesman said if any former players had contacted the club, it would have helped them. He added no former player from the Baltimore years even asked for tickets to Sunday’s game.
Don Joyce, a scout employed by the current Colts and a defensive end for Baltimore from 1954 to ’60, will act as ceremonial captain for the game. Former running back Lydell Mitchell was the only other player from the Baltimore era approached for the honor. He declined.
Many of the players who achieved great success in Baltimore have remained ever since, and it’s another reason Indianapolis is so far, far away.
“There was something special here; it was the closeness between players and fans,” Unitas said. “The people went out and sold 25,000 tickets to get the Colts in the first place. There were Colt Corrals, social clubs, set up to help promote the team. There were nothing but sellouts. On a Sunday when the Colts were in town, you could shoot a cannon down the middle of Baltimore Street and not hit anyone, because they were either at the game or inside listening to it.”
Steadman said he recently stopped by a deli owned by a man named Gino O’Connell. “I asked him if he was named after Marchetti,” Steadman said. “He said, ‘That’s my middle name. I’m Gino Marchetti O’Connell.’ That’s just the way it was around here; people named their children after the football players.”
And that’s what Unitas recalled so fondly. “It’s the people that make up the city,” Unitas said. “These were genuine people, not backstabbers.”
But is there any chance for reconciliation with the franchise that he made so famous?
“There is no reason for reconciliation,” Unitas said. “I’m not upset with them. They are a team in Indianapolis. Some people in Baltimore might hold grudges, and most of them will probably be cheering for Pittsburgh, but I have no feelings.
“The team should be having the time of their life; they earned where they are. I have no hard feelings against the players themselves, and I’m very happy for Teddy Marchibroda. We were together in Pittsburgh until I was cut. I have tremendous respect for him.
“I have no hard feelings against anyone. I ran into Irsay a few years ago and I said, “Hi, how are you doing?’ That’s all water under the bridge. A jerk is a jerk and always will be a jerk. No big deal.”
Unitas was the only Colt to serve on the 1958, 1959 and 1970 championship teams, but he said he does not wear a championship ring of any sort. “My fingers are too torn up,” he said. “And I can’t get them on.”
But given all of Unitas’ accomplishments as a football player, doesn’t he feel a sense of loss in distancing himself from the Colts?
“Records are not material things,” he said. “They can’t take any of that away from me; it’s all in my mind.”