One year following emergency, No. 19 on top of his game

March 04, 1994|By John Steadman

It's difficult for John Unitas to be anything but realistic. No highs or lows. An even balance to all aspects of his life. Never the trace of an alibi nor a boast or brag. Maybe a mere shrug of the shoulders to express frustration but nothing more.

This time a year ago he underwent what was a routine knee-replacement operation but, suddenly, without a hint of warning, it became a life or death emergency. Family, friends and admirers from around the world awaited the next bulletin on his condition.

The stoic, competitive Unitas was in trouble and knew it. A triple-heart bypass was required -- immediately. The surprise to Unitas was that he never had a pain or reason to be concerned.

He wasn't a smoker, consumed only an occasional glass of beer and at 196 pounds was close to the weight he carried during a star-spangled playing career with the Baltimore Colts that made him the consummate quarterback. Unitas didn't fit the profile of a man about to have a heart attack.

The knee surgery was successful at Kernan Hospital. He was enjoying a visit from a daughter, Janice, and her husband when he was stricken. Doctors quickly transferred him from a facility that majors in orthopedic repairs to the University of Maryland Medical Center, where specialists assessed his condition.

They told him time was important. "Then go ahead and do what you have to do," is what his wife, Sandra, remembers him saying.

It has been a year to the day since his entrance to Kernan was followed by the ambulance ride to University Hospital.

Right now, he looks the part of a strong, vibrant and healthy specimen of manhood. Facially, he doesn't look his age, which will be 61 on his next birthday.

Only yesterday he went through a four-hour examination, including a stress test, and came through successfully.

What changes has he made in lifestyle?

"My diet is different," he answers. "I stay away from saturated fats. I don't eat dairy foods, sausage, bacon or eggs. Well, I'm told I can have three eggs a week, but breakfast now is usually dry cereal. I cut way down on red meat. Most of the time, I have a lot of vegetables, fish and turkey.

"I work out at Kernan three days a week with Bill Neill, the man in charge of physical therapy and a friend for almost 40 years. I use the treadmill, lift weights, but not a heavy load of iron, and spend time on the leg machines. I feel fine, like I could run and jump all around but there's no need for any of that."

The new right knee is sound and, in about a year, he'll have similar surgery on the other one. Later this month, he's facing an operation on his right hand, including replacement of a knuckle that he injured in 1963 when he hit the helmet of another player while following through.

More importantly, a tendon also will be stretched to provide mobility to an injured thumb.

"I have much to be thankful for," he said. "A great wife in Sandra, outstanding children and an awareness the Good Lord gave me more time to be here and enjoy being with them. None of us can take life for granted. I never have."

Only a week before he underwent the heart bypass, which had no relationship to the knee surgery, he went on a fishing trip to South America, a remote part of Venezuela.

"Had it happened to me there, I would have been a goner," he said. "Another reason to be thankful."

Meanwhile, in a football aspect, a new team called the Baltimore CFL Colts is now in business, which makes Unitas happy.

"I'm glad it happened," he said. "The Canadian version is more open and the rules are different. From what I know about the game, comparatively speaking, it is a little better than college football. But there's nothing wrong with that."

Does he have any resentment over the Colts' name being used by a Canadian League team?

"Of course not," Unitas said. "It belongs in Baltimore. The name started here before the NFL was even involved in Baltimore. For the NFL to have tried to stop use of the name is about what you'd expect from those people."

Unitas has a definitive "game plan" toward maintaining health. He's free of arranging personal appearances and endorsements since a son, John Jr., who operates what is called Unitas' Management Corp, now handles all his scheduling.

A ready smile has always been a Unitas calling card. It's there, as usual, which foretells all is right in his world.

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