Get-well messages still roll in for Unitas

John Steadman

April 22, 1993|By John Steadman

That so many demonstrated how much they cared ha signaled to John Unitas the special place he holds in the hearts of America. His humility never let him deal in self-promotion. He heard all the cheers, has been hailed as the consummate quarterback and automatically rode into the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a unanimous selection.

There wasn't much else to attain in a sport where for 18 seasons he took the toughest physical shots the opposition could deliver, pulled himself up without complaint and proceeded to record first downs or touchdowns. Unitas earned the personal and professional respect of those on the other side of the scrimmage line because he was beyond intimidation and never alibied.

Often the public creates heroes and, in the end, is disappointed. Not with Unitas. But it took a heart problem, resulting in a three-way bypass, for him to realize how he was revered. He quickly became Baltimore's most renowned hospital patient.

Letters and cards arrived from all over the world for the most famous Baltimore Colt of them all. "I never thought much about what others thought of me," he said. "But the response, those get-well wishes, made a real impression. I didn't know they felt that way about me. It has meant a lot."

It is now over six weeks since Unitas underwent surgery at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Three huge baskets of mail have been delivered to him. And now that his strength is returning and he's preparing again to travel, he also has the time to reflect on the goodwill so many expressed in his behalf.

"They all were kind," he says. "It makes you aware again how there are so many more good people than bad. All of us know that. You just have to be in my position to realize the concern so many old friends and even strangers have for you when you get hit with a problem."

Was there one letter that meant more than any other? "I can't say that. But a young man wrote from a prison congratulating me on the role model I had been. I connected importance to that. He said he had seen me play once in Cleveland. He admitted to breaking the law and knew he had to pay the price. Yet he was interested in how I was doing."

Some mail for Unitas, requesting that it be forwarded, arrived at this newspaper. There was a picture of Unitas, signed by Brian Parton, a music producer from Broken Arrow, Okla., and 70 other well-wishers. All were unknowns to Unitas.

Parton explained: "My father was a Unitas fan and I inherited the same interest. I saw him enter Super Bowl III and almost pull it out. When I read he was sick I felt I had to do something. That's why I got so many workers at the Ford plant in Tulsa to sign their names."

A former Baltimore resident, Jerry Semerad, wrote from New Orleans to recall how Unitas once showed up, unannounced, at his house in 1959 on a rainy Sunday morning and spent two hours visiting his son, Larry, then on crutches and suffering from Perthe's hip disease.

"It turned out Unitas and I later worked for the same company, Farboil, when he was employed during the off-season," remembered Semerad. "He'll be pleased to know Larry graduated from Notre Dame in 1973 and came within one bout of making the 1976 Olympic boxing team. He's now involved in arranging computer sequences in the music business.

"So, you see, Unitas was an important influence in the life of our family. You know what sets John apart? He has a way of putting everything in perspective. He was never one to talk about himself. Don't think the fans don't know that and admire him for it."

Unitas, who turns 60 next month, is planning a trip to Indianapolis tomorrow to attend the GTE Academic All-America program, where former teammate Raymond Berry asked him to be his presenter at the induction ceremony. Others, along with Berry, being honored for athletic/scholastic achievement are Dave Casper, Jim Grabowski and Kermit Washington.

Doctors have advised he can soon return to his normal lifestyle so there's every reason for him to be encouraged -- and thankful. Meanwhile, those who reveled in his ability, from near and far, and marveled at the Horatio Alger story his life has exemplified feel elated about seeing him off the "injured reserve" list.

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