Money had never been plentiful for Mr. Unitas while growing up in Pittsburgh. He was accustomed to backbreaking labor, working odd jobs during the school year and on construction gangs in the summers. His University of Louisville career was sandwiched between jobs in a tobacco warehouse and construction.
Even as his NFL career took off and he left his blue-collar jobs behind, family obligations kept the pressure on Mr. Unitas to make money. Today, he has eight children by two marriages. He established trust funds to educate his five children by his first wife, Dorothy. His three youngest school-aged children remain with him and his wife, Sandra, at their imposing colonial home -- purchased in 1987 for $525,000 -- that overlooks sloping pasture land in Baldwin, in northeastern Baltimore County near the Harford County line.
He lives a comfortable, if not ostentatious, life. He owns American-made trucks and sedans. He vacations in Ocean City, where he owns a $165,000 condominium.
But friends say making money, while a necessity, was not his only ambition in business.
"I think John wants to succeed," said Mr. Tatelbaum. "I think he also wants to prove that he's more than a football player."
Steve Bohle, an executive in Mr. Unitas' air freight firm, said, "I think business is some form of competition for him."
Mr. Unitas began his first business venture early in his football career. In the spring of 1961, Mr. Unitas, Colts owner Carroll Rosenbloom and local investor George Banks III opened Maryland's first tenpin bowling alley, Colt Lanes, across from the Social Security headquarters. The alley was outfitted with dark paneling, foam walls painted Colt blue and white, a thick carpet with the Colt insignia, and a giant horseshoe outside the front entrance.
He claimed that tenpins was the coming rage. He was wrong.
Within three years, Mr. Unitas' eight-house Colt Lanes operation, beset by debt and federal tax delinquency, was pushed into bankruptcy. Mr. Rosenbloom and Mr. Banks each lost $162,500. Mr. Unitas lost $21,666 in the deal, according to published accounts.
In retrospect, the Colt Lanes fiasco provided the model for Mr. Unitas' later failures. He was lured by friends into a misguided venture and then often failed to assert hands-on control to protect his interests. Although his personal involvement varied from venture to venture, he continually left day-to-day management of his businesses to others. And what he learned about business, he learned on the job.
Mr. Unitas, and the attorney handling his bankruptcy, James R. Wooton, declined to be interviewed for this article.
Friends and associates say Mr. Unitas approached business with the same attitude he brought to football. He took his hits, got up, and went on to the next play. Despite his setbacks, Mr. Unitas made it a point of pride to repay his debts.
Mr. Unitas had his successes. According to court documents, in the early '70s he had assets of nearly $2 million. He profited from his personal real estate holdings -- most notably, the Timonium house and land he purchased for $85,000 in 1971 and sold for $750,000 in 1987.
His most famous enterprise was the Golden Arm Restaurant that he and Colt teammate Bobby Boyd opened in 1968 in a York Road shopping center at the county line. The bar-restaurant, with walls covered by photographs of the Colts' greatest moments, attracted regular customers and tourists hoping to spot Mr. Unitas, who occasionally dropped in to shake hands.
"We made some good money in that thing for 15 years, steady as it could be," Mr. Boyd said.
After recovering from the bowling bankruptcy, Mr. Unitas
appeared to be on the rebound in the early 1970s. Although his 1972 divorce cost him "an awful lot of alimony," according to Mr. Tatelbaum, his financial picture seemed rosy. He received a $175,000 bonus and $250,000 for his last season in San Diego, had a broadcast contract with CBS-TV, and also earned $30,000 a year for 10 years after his retirement to act as a special consultant with the Colts.
But even in the early '70s, a financial disaster was emerging in Florida. Mr. Unitas and Dario Icardi, one of his high school coaches, became partners in a real estate deal. They invested in a hotel and restaurant by the airport, a 700-acre tract for housing 25 miles northwest of Orlando, an 88-acre plot in Deltona, and a crab and catfish supply company in Welaka.
The venture ended in acrimony and, for Mr. Unitas, a punishing financial loss. By 1978, in a $2.1 million lawsuit later settled for an undisclosed amount, Mr. Unitas was blaming Mr. Icardi for a raft of business sins and betrayals: moving money from his bank account without his knowledge; using his name to borrow money; purchasing swampland and leaving Mr. Unitas with the $100,000 bill.
To get out from under a $3.2 million mortgage, the partners were forced to give the hotel away to a Los Angeles investment trust.
"John's reaction was the deepest hurt you can get," said Mr. Tatelbaum, who brought the suit.