Unitas' former linemen still come to his defense Ex-Colts who did well feel pain for Unitas and his money woes.

March 15, 1991|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Evening Sun Staff

Not a day passes that Big Jim Parker doesn't think of John Unitas. The two former Colt greats are depicted in an oil painting that hangs on the wall of Parker's liquor store in Forest Park.

The painting (circa 1958) shows Parker, a lineman, protecting his quarterback as Unitas fades back to pass.

More than three decades later, the portrait seems eerily symbolic. Last month, Unitas-the-businessman dropped deep into his pocket and filed for Chapter 11 reorganization in U.S. Bankruptcy Court, raising Parker's concerns for his old teammate.

"If I had $10 in the bank and John asked me for half of it, he could have it," says Parker, 56. "I love John like a brother."

Another ex-Colt lineman, Dan Sullivan, was dismayed by news of Unitas' most recent financial woes.

"Whenever this happens to John, a little part of America dies," says Sullivan, a successful businessman in Andover, Mass. "Twenty people stopped me last week to say, 'Sorry about your pal John Unitas.'

"That tells you something about the magnitude of the man."

For all his football brilliance, Unitas has been thrown for a number of business losses, to the chagrin of former teammates.

Unitas, 57, filed for bankruptcy in February to avoid the possibility that his personal assets would be seized to help repay nearly $4 million in loans made to a circuit-board manufacturing company, which Unitas and several partners purchased in 1984. Unitas was one of the guarantors of the loans.

Meanwhile, several of Unitas' old blocker-bodyguards, offensive linemen like Parker, Sullivan and Alex Sandusky, have forged stable if not spectacular careers after football.

For 26 years, Parker has owned a package goods store and bar on Liberty Heights Avenue, which he bought for $180,000 toward the end of his 11-year Colt career.

Parker says he paid off the bank loan within 4 years, an accomplishment that makes him nearly as proud as joining Unitas in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Parker can understand Unitas' reasons for declaring bankruptcy: to protect his Baltimore County home and other personal assets. In football terms, Unitas chose to give up a safety rather than risk a fumble deep in his own territory while being blitzed by creditors.

"I think John did a wise thing," says Parker. "He nipped this thing in the bud before it got away from him. I'd have done the same thing. And he'll pay them [creditors] their money. He's built that way."

Unitas joined the Colts in 1956; Parker arrived a year later, from Ohio State, at a time when a No. 1 draft pick earned $12,500 a year and a bonus of $1,500.

Parker says he took the bonus money, all in $1 bills, put it in a bathtub at the Belvedere Hotel and jumped in, with his wife and a bottle of champagne.

Like most pro athletes in that era, Parker worked in the off-season. He says he toiled briefly as a laborer at Bethlehem Steel, until being fired for playing with the huge cranes -- using the controls to make them go back and forth -- on his lunch hour.

Parker then sold cemetery lots and embalming fluid before settling in as a liquor salesman for eight years.

By 1965, he knew the business and decided to buy his own store.

As did Unitas in some ventures, Parker stumbled early in his business career by practicing absentee ownership. He allowed others to run his store while he played ball, and Parker paid for it. One year, he was robbed of half his stock.

"When I took inventory, I found that $40,000 of liquor had gone right out the door," says Parker. He fired his employees and began taking more interest in the place. He still works five days a week, training his three grown sons to handle the store when he retires in a couple of years.

"Business is hell," grouses the 315-pound Parker. "We're still turning a profit, but competition in the county is hurting us.

"I don't have a whole lot of money, but I'm damn happy. I was fortunate enough to feed my children, keep a roof over their heads and keep them out of drugs."

Parker, who lives in a custom-built home in Columbia, will retire to his hometown of Macon, Ga., on a homestead he bought for $10,000 with his NFL championship checks of 1958 and 1959.

Along with Parker, Dan Sullivan made a career of protecting Unitas from pass rushers and feels sorry about the bankruptcy filing.

Sullivan, 51, says he knew Unitas was having difficulties when they spoke several months ago.

"John said he had some problems with the banks," says Sullivan. "He said, 'Hell, I just can't pay them now. They'll have to live with me.'

"Some guys are blessed with the best of luck. Others operate under a dark cloud. It seems like that has been the case with John in all of these business ventures," says Sullivan, a Boston College graduate who played in Baltimore from 1961-73.

"The thing about John is, he will pay back every penny owed. He's a man of his word."

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