Unitas' illness makes fans realize just how precious Colts hero is

John Steadman

March 17, 1993|By John Steadman

As a bona fide, genuine hero, John Unitas causes heads to turn in public places. Men, women and children, all strangers, approach to extend a glad hand of recognition. That's the celebrity role, a position he never sought but which occurred by dint of his Football Hall of Fame accomplishments.

The Baltimore Colts and Unitas became synonymous. He was a quarterback who rescued his team with daring play-calling, exacting execution and, in the end, he didn't know what it was to brag on himself. More importantly, from a character standpoint, if the final result happened to go into the loss column there was not the faintest trace of a self-serving alibi.

Now Unitas has come through one of the toughest ordeals he was ever asked to face. Triple-bypass heart surgery isn't to be confused with a walk in the park.

A reporter who has known him since the day in 1956 when he arrived in training camp was told by his wife he was feeling better and would soon be discharged from the University of Maryland Medical Center. If we cared to visit, she said, the invitation was extended.

A knock on the door and Sandra Unitas said, "Come right in, John's happy you're here." And, without the semblance of a doubt, he looked like the healthiest patient you would ever want to see.

"How you doing, Peas?" he asked.

The "Peas" is a nickname that two former Colts, Unitas and Bert Rechichar, and a sportswriter used interchangeably for one another. It never made any sense but it was concocted by Rechichar, one of Unitas' favorite teammates, and became an identifying greeting.

Unitas, while putting a life-and-death experience behind him, is overwhelmed by the reaction of the public -- the messages of good will, written and telephoned; the prayers offered by those of all faiths in his behalf. He's visibly moved by the sincere outpouring of personal wishes.

For the last two days in the hospital, Unitas has fulfilled requests to call on ill children and offer a smile and encouraging words. For the most part, the children don't realize he's the consummate quarterback but are aware he's famous and they feel important when he says hello.

This is nothing new. Unitas has given of himself to children in all kinds of circumstances. When youngsters approach, it's almost as if they are answering the call of a Pied Piper. It's obvious he's comfortable; it shows. But, in the adult world, he has become wary of those trying to push close to him.

Maybe it's because kids only seek his company and nothing else. "John does anything for them," said Sandra. "And, in some past instances, he probably should have stayed apart from several of the so-called business partners he trusted."

How true.

But this is not the appropriate moment for instant replay, or second-guessing of a business career. That has never been the Unitas way. Always stoic under fire and ready to get on with the game, he was never one to be bothered with the consequence of an interception.

The way Mr. and Mrs. John Q. Public have reacted to Unitas' illness and comeback provides a different look. There's evidence he's going to become even more of a deity. The health problems have brought a caring concern, a revised reminder of how important he is to so many people.

"You have no idea," said a former teammate, Dick Szymanski, "how highly America regards Unitas. I have seen it and heard it because I've been with him at appearances all over the country. All the great players, past and present, get an ovation but then when Unitas is mentioned, it's double what any of the others receive."

Such adulation exists but now it's going to rise to a higher level. Why? Because here and elsewhere he's looked on as more than a legend. He's a sports treasure and this brush with serious trauma has added to his prominence and popularity.

"I agree," commented a friend, Bill Neill, head of physical therapy at Kernan Hospital. "My belief is what happened to him is going to add in an unusual way to his stature. The general public is more interested in his welfare than ever before."

The affection is a tribute to the man and what he means to America. He has never been a phony and wouldn't know how to be -- even if his life depended on it.

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