Unitas discovers life after football is string of losses

THE DECLINE AND FALL OF A CHAMPION

March 17, 1991|By Bill Glauber and Michael Ollove

On a football field, his vision was clear and focused. When he and his teammates were battered, when his protection was collapsing, when time was running out, Johnny Unitas could serenely survey the mayhem, find an opening, and carry the Baltimore Colts to titles and greatness.

But off the field, the man considered the greatest quarterback of his generation was unable to negotiate his way through the tumult of business. Burdened by a 30-year record of bad luck, bad investments and bad planning, No. 19 is now in Chapter 11.

Millions of dollars in debt, Mr. Unitas and his wife, Sandra, filed for bankruptcy under Chapter 11 Feb. 22, seeking financial protection while a court devises a payout plan to their creditors.

Once, thousands of fans beseeched Johnny U. for handshakes and autographs. In the past year, a line of process servers has appeared at his Baldwin doorstep, notifying him that his wages, bank accounts and pension were being frozen by his creditors and that a lien had been placed against his home.

Summing up Mr. Unitas' business career, longtime friend Richard Sammis, a car dealer known as "Mr. Nobody," said: "If you're asking me, it is a disaster. It has never been pretty. It has always been a battle, and maybe John is glad it's over."

Mr. Unitas bought a chain of bowling alleys in the early 1960s, just as America's appetite for bowling dwindled. He bought real estate in Orlando, Fla., when Disney World was blossoming into a national theme park, but the property included swampland and was on the wrong side of town. He opened a restaurant in Towson that closed immediately. He founded an air freight business that was grounded after seven years when $250,000 disappeared.

Along the way, Mr. Unitas bombed as a national football sportscaster, associated himself with a tout sheet that prompted a disapproving National Football League to temporarily sever ties with him, and considered creating a franchise of clothing stores that would blanket the East Coast. It never happened.

Renowned for being tough and stoic in a football game, close friends say they can see the 57-year-old former champion has been deeply hurt by business beatings.

"He has become very calloused," said Charles Tatelbaum, a friend and attorney who has represented Mr. Unitas for 17 years. "If you keep stepping on a thorn on your foot, you build up a callous. People have tried to use him. John believes in people."

All his setbacks pale compared with the $5.3 million in loan agreements that finally deposited Mr. Unitas into bankruptcy. In 1984, he and two associates purchased a Reisterstown circuit ++ board company and later moved it to Baltimore. To complete the deal, however, the men and their wives had to sign personal guarantees backing the millions of dollars in loans.

As it turned out, they were the most expensive autographs of Mr. Unitas' career.

*

John Constantine Unitas came out of Western Pennsylvania, a strong-armed coal deliveryman's son with a crew cut, stooped shoulders, and black high-top cleats. He mirrored blue-collar Baltimore, bestowing glory onto a blunt, unglamorous town. Bloodied and bruised, he could drag himself up from the mud and calmly beat his opponents with prescient play-calling and relentless proficiency.

His Hall of Fame career stretched over 18 seasons, during which he set seven lifetime NFL passing records. He was the star of "the greatest game ever played," the Colts' 1958 championship win over the New York Giants, and he was the starting quarterback in Super Bowl V in 1971, when the Colts defeated the Dallas Cowboys.

He was the team's unquestioned leader, but he was a taciturn man who rarely revealed his emotions. He was an iceman, a quality that enabled him to perform clinically during a game but didn't permit his teammates to become close to him.

"I never really knew John," said Hall of Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry, who spent hour after hour taking practice passes from Mr. Unitas.

He played during an era when players received their raises in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Most of his teammates held off-season jobs, and all of them knew they would have to work full time when their playing days ended. For many, the goal was to build enough of a cash stake to begin a business. Jim Parker opened a liquor store. Art Donovan took over a country club. Gino Marchetti and Alan Ameche struck it rich as fast-food pioneers.

Even though Mr. Unitas was the biggest star of them all, his football salaries weren't enough to carry him for the rest of his life. He made $7,000 in his first season in 1956 with the Colts, and $250,000 in his last in 1973 with the San Diego Chargers. He, too, looked for ways to prosper away from the football field.

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