Leave it to Unitas to stage cash comeback

John Steadman

February 26, 1991|By John Steadman

Nothing has ever been easy for John Unitas, who gave himself to pro football as few men ever have, totally and without condition, while achieving extraordinary Hall of Fame results. He deserves a better break -- more completions, not interceptions -- in business life but this hasn't happened.

That he has filed for chapter 11 proceedings, in bankruptcy court, is disturbing for him and also his friends, who realize how hard he has worked, including the hours and personal monies he invested in an effort with a circuit board manufacturing company.

Unitas deserved better. Eighteen years of playing in the National Football League brought fame but not much fortune, compared to what others of less talent have been able to compile.

He is admittedly the foremost quarterback the game has produced and his popularity endures. The most he ever made with the Baltimore Colts was $125,000 a year, accrued in small salary increases from the $7,000 no-bonus contract he signed as a rookie in 1956.

In fact, it wasn't until he was sold to the San Diego Chargers in 1972 that his new team's management, specifically owner Gene Klein, doubled the terms to $250,000 on a two-season deal. He could rally an offense, move it to the goal line but making a commensurate amount of gold for himself has not become a reality.

Off the field, the costly reversals have not been all of his making. He was soft-talked by people who dealt themselves in as partners in a succession of enterprises, including bowling lanes, Florida real estate and construction, a freight company and now a circuit board concern.

Unitas' attitude suggests he charges it all off to hard experience but he must ask himself why others do unto him what he would never do unto them. Naive? Maybe. Trusting? To a fault. Honest? Without a doubt.

Court documents carry the names of John and his wife, Sandra, who spoke volumes when she said, "There's a war going on with young Americans being killed and wounded. When I think of that it enables you to keep other things, such as this, in perspective.

"Anyone who knows John realizes how strong he is and that he can be depended upon. We'll see evidence of that again."

Unitas is voluntarily trying to protect all creditors while re-arranging his affairs so he can make payments at a later date. An honorable pursuit under the circumstances.

The most serious monetary setback occurred before his playing career ended and he entered into an agreement with his former junior varsity high school basketball coach, one Dario "Ike" Icardi, a lawyer then living in Orlando, Fla.

Unitas thought he had a partner assuming joint responsibility. It didn't work out that way. Icardi led him into erecting a motel and restaurant, purchase of an office building, involvement in the proposed sale of residential home lots in a real estate development and buying a fish and crab supply house.

It all went crashing down in a business recession that hit the Orlando area and Unitas was left holding the bag of indebtedness, totaling a reported $7 million. Some of the banks, realizing the circumstances, provided partial relief and he paid an adjusted amount, although still sizable in scope.

At the time, when he was working to repay the loan, he never screamed for mercy. "I'm doing the best I can," he said. "If they want to put me in jail I guess they can do that."

To his credit, and typically Unitas, he paid off the revised part of the financial arrangement. His most successful operation was the Golden Arm Restaurant, which he owned for 20 years. However, one partner, Bobby Boyd, left by selling his ownership share to Jack Kahl without telling him about it until the transaction had been finalized.

In selling the Golden Arm, he paid off restaurant debts and even included some of his own personal finances to make good on monies owed to suppliers. He didn't walk away with a profit but he should have. Again, another example of Unitas standing up to be counted and not attempting to dodge the fiscal fire.

Suffice to say, the Golden Arm of football has been dealt a bad hand by men he thought were friends and confidants. The legal proceedings under the framework of the law will enable him to continue to work and protect individual and joint-held property, including his house and other personal holdings -- apart from business obligations.

Unitas wasn't the kind of ex-athlete who traded off his name or expected to be carried by investors. He has substance and integrity. Paying back all he owes may be physically impossible but if your name is John Unitas you never stop trying.

And therein is a reputation even money won't buy.

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