If you go, Johnny, hearts will break


September 10, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

Johnny, what are you doing?

You are scheduled to appear Sunday at a rally supporting Charlotte's bid for an NFL expansion franchise. Johnny Unitas, Baltimore's greatest football player, sharing billing with people supporting Baltimore's rival for an expansion team.

What are you thinking? Do you have any idea how this will look? Do you realize how much harm it might cause your name here in town?

John, don't do it. Just don't go.

I understand that Jerry Richardson, the leader of Charlotte's bid, is a former Colts teammate and a close friend of yours for 30 years.

I understand that, with the NFL scheduled to award two franchises, you could argue that there is room to support both Baltimore and Charlotte.

I understand that you still support Baltimore first. Of course you do. Shoot, it would not be a shock if you wound up somehow working for a Baltimore expansion team. Could a new franchise take a better first step in this town?

Hey, I understand that it doesn't really matter if you go or not. The NFL will not deed franchises on the basis of who goes to what silly little rally.

But there still are a horseshoe-stadium full of reasons why it would be a bad move -- perhaps sad is the better word -- if you showed up Sunday at this rally in Spartanburg, S.C., where the Charlotte people will be demonstrating one of the essential elementals of their bid: that they can attract fans from outside Charlotte.

See, it is impossible to play on both sides of the ball in this expansion game. St. Louis supposedly has one of the franchises locked up. Charlotte apparently is Baltimore's competition for the second team. You can't appear to align yourself with Charlotte like this and not hurt Baltimore.

In this atmosphere, attending a Charlotte rally amounts to an act of treason. It does not matter if you are just showing loyalty to an old friend.

It would be as if, during all those years we worried about Edward Bennett Williams moving the Orioles, Brooks Robinson had shown up at a rally supporting a change to the "Washington" Orioles. Saying he just had friends in Washington.

You can't have it both ways, Johnny. Just don't do it.

Even if you believe St. Louis does not have a team locked up, and Baltimore and Charlotte are not playing one-on-one for a team -- a possibility -- helping Charlotte still hurts Baltimore. A three-way fight is no less competitive. Who knows what might happen? No matter how you cut the details, it is terrible politics.

If Mario Cuomo showed up on the podium at a rally for George Bush . . .

John, just don't go.

Listen, I don't need to tell you what a symbolic set piece you arin this town. You live it every day. You heard the crowd's singular roar when you were introduced at the Memorial Stadium preseason game a couple of weeks ago. Everyone else felt goose bumps; surely you did, too.

But then maybe Richardson called, and you just wanted to dhim a favor and didn't think what it might mean to those people in the stands that night.

What it might mean to this city.

Johnny, you are Baltimore's only true legend. Perhaps Brooks is your equal, but he is on television all the time, and people feel as if they know him, as if he were a friendly neighbor. You still have that outsized quality. People just want to touch you. They offer you the jaw-dropping reverence that icons engender.

To those people in the stands at the preseason game, you alonsymbolized what they remember and what they so badly want again.

If you show up at the Charlotte rally, you are going to disappoint them terribly. They are not going to like it. They are not going to be understanding about your friendship with Richardson. Your appearance at the rally spits right in the face of exactly what they want.

Maybe you do not see the conflict, but you might be the only one.

The conflict is there.

Here is an excerpt from a Sunday article in The State, a newspaper in Columbia, S.C.: "Organizers say the irony of the pep rally finds Unitas, who played for the Colts from 1956 to 1972, now supporting Richardson's bid against Baltimore."

That is the spin being given this rally, John. It will not change.

Now, of course, you owe your behavior only to yourself. You can do whatever you want if it makes you happy, particularly go to some meaningless, little pep rally.

But sports are affairs of the heart, John. Symbolism is not weightless in this wedge of the world. It is a rich currency that does not trade easily, as that full house at Memorial Stadium vividly evidenced.

Affairs of the heart, John. Think about it.

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