Unitas does it again for - MTA Famed 1958 championship game being replayed to win transit riders

October 16, 1993|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

It's sudden death overtime in the 1958 NFL Championship Game. The Colts have the ball on the New York Giants 1-yard line. A touchdown will win the game.

Johnny Unitas looks at No. 35, then shakes his head. His gaze falls on this new guy in the huddle in a spotlessly clean jersey.

"I was gonna run 'The Horse' up the middle," the quarterback tells the befuddled player, "but now I'm throwing it to you."

As anyone who knows anything about the National Football League or the Colts can tell you, this is a rewrite of sacred history. Thirty-five years ago, Alan Ameche plunged across the line to win the game, 23-17.

But this isn't Yankee Stadium on Dec. 28, 1958; it's a soccer field at Towson High School yesterday afternoon. Every player in the huddle, except the man known as the "Golden Arm," is a local actor.

It took a half-hour of "takes" to capture this sequence for a 30-second commercial being filmed for the Mass Transit Administration, a fantasy featuring a subway rider who dreams of catching the winning touchdown in the "greatest game ever played."

In 1958, the victory was a defining moment for Baltimore. The game transcended mere sport. It galvanized a city. Now, the MTA is hoping to draw upon the power of that moment to turn around Baltimore public transit systems that have been losing ridership like The Horse shed tacklers.

The football commercial -- and a companion romantic fantasy featuring a light rail rider who dreams of a ballroom love affair -- is the centerpiece for a $750,000 advertising and marketing campaign to be launched Oct. 25 by the MTA.

The pitch will be that mass transit gives its riders time to work, relax, or even fantasize. The slogan: "Metro. Light Rail. MARC Train. Or Bus. Now you've got the time."

"The one element that is of tremendous importance today to people is time," said John A. Agro Jr., the MTA's administrator. "Having heard that from our riders, we figured this is something our services can offer you can't do while driving."

The theme is deliberately ambiguous. Its creators say it can also mean that mass transit is a faster way to get around, although that pitch is clearly secondary.

The approach was chosen after researchers assembled focus groups of regular riders, nonriders and employees to evaluate MTA services in July. The conclusion: Convenience and relaxation ranked of greater importance than concerns such as cost or environmental benefits.

The stakes are high. In the past four years, the bus and subway systems have lost thousands of riders, down from a total of 342,400 in 1990 to 297,300 this year. Only MARC ridership has risen since 1989. And while ridership is down, costs are up. Both Metro and MTA fares were increased in January. Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) fares rose 19 percent this month.

The marketing campaign budget amounts to three times what the MTA spent on advertising last year. The TV ads, created by Eisner & Associates under a $258,000 contract, are scheduled to air for the next six months. But Mr. Agro said that he believes some extraordinary efforts are needed to staunch the hemorrhaging of riders.

"We can't sit back any longer and wait for something to happen," he said.

On the Towson set, there is a surreal atmosphere as actors dressed as players, bystanders and a referee, and ad executives and their families line up for autographs and pictures with Mr. Unitas.

After the crew from Dallas, wraps up filming today, narration will be added by broadcaster Chuck Thompson.

Mr. Unitas, who admits he had never ridden on the Metro, is an old hand at this sort of Hollywood thing. His vintage Colts uniform, including trademark high-top cleats, came from a California costumer. The real ones are in the Hall of Fame.

"What're ya doin?" his 3-year-old granddaughter, Jillian Lee Unitas, yells across the set between takes.

"We're playing a game," her 60-year-old grandfather yells back.

It's the first time the fabled quarterback has ever been asked to re-create the 1958 game. He doesn't mind reliving the memory, even toying with it, for what he perceives as a good cause.

"A day doesn't go by that I'm not asked about the game," he said. "It was an important moment to an awful lot of people -- people who went through some poor seasons before we had the good seasons."

Bill Mitchell, Eisner's creative director, is enjoying himself immensely. The Baltimore native dreamed up the football sequence as the "ultimate male fantasy," but it's really his fantasy. "To me, this is really a pinnacle," said Mr. Mitchell, who was 8 when the real game took place. "I remember my Dad wanted everybody to be quiet while he was watching the TV. And I was a pretty dyed-in-the-wool Colt fan, too."

Not everyone is caught up in the moment. Towson students, who were no older than 9 when the Colts moved to Indianapolis, seem indifferent to the commotion on the field. One of the actors, Mike Robinson, is particularly nonchalant.

As it happens, Mr. Robinson is the son of another Baltimore sports hero, former Orioles third-baseman Brooks Robinson. To the younger Robinson, Mr. Unitas is just a friend of the family.

"I had no idea what was going on. I thought it [the game] was '69," said Mr. Robinson, 28, a salesman and part-time model and actor.

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