Old Colts fan savors Unitas-to-Berry duo at academic banquet

John Steadman

April 26, 1993|By John Steadman

Growing up in the Baltimore suburbs was an occasion for Michael Flanagan to watch John Unitas from a seat in the stands and applaud his achievements.

He finally met him, via a rather circuitous route, having to go to Indianapolis from his office in Dallas for a banquet in the city that usurped the Colts and deprived Baltimore of a prideful birthright.

Unitas was in Indianapolis to present a former teammate, Raymond Berry, at the GTE Academic All-America Hall of Fame ceremonies. Flanagan is media relations manager for the organization and the occasion afforded an opportunity to be with boyhood heroes.

For the first time in the history of the award, which has been held in the past at such divergent venues as Los Angeles, Tampa, Dallas, New York and Durham, N.C., a presenter, Unitas, received more applause than Berry or any of the other recipients, including Dave Casper, Jim Grabowski and Kermit Washington.

"It was an astonishing experience," reported Flanagan. "Seven hundred guests in the ballroom came to their feet when Unitas was introduced by master of ceremonies Dick Enberg, who never once mentioned the emergency heart surgery John hTC underwent in February. A lot of people in the room didn't know it; they just knew the kind of quarterback he was."

Mmeanwhile, at the same function, the owner of the Colts, Robert Irsay, was asked to stand and be recognized. Out of curiosity, it's pertinent to wonder the type reaction he received in the city where he moved the Colts in 1984.

"It was lukewarm at best," answered Flanagan.

Before the dinner began, Unitas was interviewed by an Indianapolis television station. With Flanagan standing nearby, here's what he heard Unitas say for the viewers in Indianapolis: "It's a shame Baltimore had to lose the team, but at least it was one way to rid Baltimore of Bob Irsay."

That's Unitas -- candid, appropriate. It wouldn't be any part of the Unitas personna to be in Indianapolis and offer its citizens a political statement.

As for what Unitas had to say to the audience about his years with Berry, he went the whimsical route: "I want to thank Raymond for asking me here. Maybe it's because he knows this is the closest I'm ever going to get to an academic program. When I graduated from the University of Louisville, they retired my grades. . . not my jersey."

Berry, pleased that Unitas and his wife, Sandra, made the trip, was humble in his acceptance. "I want you to know I would only have been half the receiver I was if it hadn't been for John Unitas," he said.

Flanagan, once the publicity director for the Baltimore Eagles when they were national semi-pro football champions and then a sportswriter for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, is conversant with Unitas' career. He asked Unitas if it was true that only he, Jim Brown and Gale Sayers had won the Most Valuable Player Award in the Pro Bowl three times.

"Guess what he told me?" asked Flanagan. "He looked at me and said, 'I care more about kids and animals than that kind of stuff.' His wife mentioned about the same thing to me in a later conversation. From talking to him, it's obvious he remembers games and situations a lot more vividly than personal things he was able to do."

Flanagan enjoyed hearing Unitas relate a Berry anecdote. The Colts were pounding the Washington Redskins, which in that day was not unusual. Coach Weeb Ewbank sent in a pass play he wanted used against a Redskins defensive back. Unitas called it but Berry objected.

Later on the sidelines, Ewbank wanted to know why the order was rejected.

"Because," Unitas answered, "Raymond didn't want to because we hadn't practiced it."

The coach changed demeanor and said, "Well, OK, then."

It was symbolic of the universal respect held for Berry.

Mike Flanagan said it was a memorable event to be at the same function with Unitas and Berry. "They represent a great part of my life in Baltimore," he said. "To meet them and see the kind of men they are meant more than I can tell you."

From Dallas to Indianapolis to see two Hall of Fame players, both Baltimore Colts, in the city where the same franchise now holds forth. It was gratifying for Flanagan and makes for a special page in any album of memories.

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