Calling John Unitas a traitor to city is a low blow

John Steadman

September 11, 1992|By John Steadman

Painting John Unitas as a traitor to the Baltimore football cause is totally inaccurate and does him a personal injustice. It's the cheapest of shots, lacking evidence and without a sliver of credibility. He says his desire to do a favor for a friend, a former teammate, has been grossly distorted. Attempts have been made to make it appear he's selling out to another would-be National Football League expansion city. Not so.

Unitas is to appear at a pep rally in Spartanburg, S.C., on Sunday, along with 16 other former NFL players. But he says it does not remotely represent an endorsement of Jerry Richardson's attempts to get an expansion franchise for the Carolinas.

Richardson and Unitas have been acquainted since 1959 when they played on an NFL championship team in Baltimore. They have visited frequently over the years and have helped each other financially and personally.

It's understood, too, that Unitas asked for and received from Richardson a loan during his involvement with a computer board company, at a time when Unitas suffered financial reverses. Part the money has been paid back.

"It would take pages to list the friends I have tried to help over the years, one way or another," said Richardson when questioned. "Aren't we in life to make things easier for friends?"

Yes, and it's known that Unitas has similarly assisted dozens of former teammates, even paying for one man's children to go to school when the father wasn't able to cover the tuition.

Unitas and Richardson both said there was no fee involved in his Sunday appearance -- that it was the result of their longtime friendship.

"All Unitas and the other players coming to Spartanburg [where Richardson lives] are going to do is stand up and be worshiped," said Richardson, a one-time Colts wide receiver who has made a momentous mark in the business world and is the leading proponent for bringing an NFL team to Charlotte -- which would represent the Carolinas.

Unitas was in Raleigh, N.C., yesterday with Jim Matthews and Larry Davis, two Baltimore men he's associated with in the operation of an electronics company. He is annoyed over the reaction his planned visit to Spartanburg has created.

"I'm going there because Jerry is my friend," Unitas said.

"It's an insult to the intelligence of anyone who can read that I would be trying to hurt Baltimore. It's a low blow. Even a fool would know my going to a pep rally would have nothing to do with one city being placed ahead of another. The only thing important in getting a team is the vote of the 28 NFL owners. Pep rallies don't earn you a football franchise."

It has long been the belief of this reporter that if Richardson hadn't made an early decision to try to obtain a team for Charlotte, he would have directed his interests to Baltimore, which is his pro football alma mater.

In regard to ownership possibilities, Tom Clancy, who heads one the three groups contending for a Baltimore team, has talked with Unitas about joining his group, but no agreement has been reached.

Richardson believes trying to link Unitas to something as innocuous as a pep rally is unfair and without substance. He went on to say, "I boost Baltimore every opportunity I get, even with the NFL. The last time was as late as last week. I don't have to be told about Baltimore. I witnessed what it was like when I played there. Many close friends live there.

"Let me put it another way. If I had gone to Baltimore for the exhibition game, which I planned to do until a business conflict arose, would that have meant I was being disloyal to the Carolinas? Of course not. I don't know if you know it or not but I had been asked to be there. What has evolved over Unitas coming to Spartanburg is somewhere between bull and humor. It's contrived.

"John Unitas was invited to a simple pep rally in my hometown. It's very logical that John and Alex Hawkins, two former Colt teammates, and friends for all this time, would be there along with about 12 or 15 others with similar football backgrounds. None of the five cities contending for a team has a guarantee. The idea that St. Louis is a 'lock' is total bunk."

On the matter of pep rallies, they mean exactly zero.

Yesterday morning, when the subject of Unitas' visit to Spartanburg was presented to listeners by Dave Durien and Jim West on WBAL-AM, the support for Unitas was overwhelming, about 8-to-1.

There's nothing sinister or compromising. Baltimore isn't damaged; Charlotte isn't elevated. The mistake is trying to read an unsavory intent into it that absolutely doesn't exist.

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