Johnny U. engineers new cause

August 31, 1994|By JOHN STEADMAN

Most of John Unitas' life has been consumed with statistics. Such impressive attainments as the first quarterback to account for more than 40,000 yards and the incomparable achievement of completing touchdown passes in 47 straight games. But the intangibles were more important, how he was beyond intimidation and refused to yield when confronted with physical pain.

There was, furthermore, no defense he couldn't beat. A mind reader? No. Just an analytical leader with a sense of recognition, a perception of how to attack a coverage and introduce the element of surprise.

Now the endeavor that interests him is far different and more important than fun and games. It deals, most emphatically, with life and death. In this connection, Unitas has accepted the responsibility of becoming spokesman for the Prostate Health Council under the sponsorship of Merck & Co. Inc., and is about to begin a national tour to sound the alarm of awareness.

The figures that are far more meaningful to Unitas than passes attempted, completed and yards gained have to do with the dangerous toll of prostate cancer (one in nine American males are afflicted) and the fact that one in four men have symptoms associated with benign prostate enlargement that results in 300,000 surgeries a year.

Unitas understands the problem and wants others to react while time is on their side, the same as when he went to see his doctor and addressed a condition before it became hazardous. His prostate was enlarged, yet not life-threatening. "I fortunately had a checkup," he said, "and that's what I ask others to do."

The Unitas name definitely will draw attention, a rather obvious observation, and hopefully those listening will heed his message. If they realize what's deemed to be a beneficial precaution, they'll act accordingly, the same as the Hall of Fame quarterback did when he had doctors track his condition.

"For me, watchful-waiting means meeting with my doctor once every three months and telling him of any changes in my urinary system," he said. "There's nothing difficult about that. Seeing doctors regularly and being open with them about what bothers you can help keep you healthy."

Then Unitas became a bit philosophical although he's never one to pollute the atmosphere with more linguistic clutter than already exists.

"I always heard my mother say if you had your health you were rich, even if you had empty pockets," he said. "A professor at my school, the University of Louisville, put it a bit differently. He said some people ruin their health making money and then have to spend that same money to get their health back."

Meaningful words and, unfortunately, true in many cases. Having Unitas as a spokesman, along with Dr. Michael Naslund, director of the Prostate Center of the University of Maryland Medical Center, will be meaningful in reducing the 35,000 deaths and 200,000 new prostate cases diagnosed annually.

While Unitas was in New York spearheading the Partnership for Prostate Health campaign, the National Football League had invited some members of its all-time team, of which he was one of four quarterbacks selected, to be presented in ceremonies at Radio City. Incredibly, he wasn't invited nor were any other Colts so honored, including Gino Marchetti, Jim Parker, Raymond Berry and Ted Hendricks.

"It guess it could be considered a slap in the face," was the casual way Unitas said when the subject was broached. "But all of Baltimore has been slapped in the face by the league. That's not new. Going back to commissioner Pete Rozelle, the league has shown an indifference to me. That's just how it's been."

While some of his contemporaries were being introduced, there was no Colt present for what was a partial all-time team gathering. Joseph Browne, NFL vice president, said this is not to be interpreted as an anti-Baltimore conspiracy, even though the guest list looks suspect by lacking even a single Colt.

"We only had about a dozen players off the 48-member team and one man for each position," Browne commented. "Otto Graham accepted early and was our representative quarterback. We plan some events where the all-time team will assemble later in the season. Of course, that'll be a complete gathering."

It's not that Unitas is offended. He figures if a host for a social function wants him then he'll try to be there but he's not about to crash the party, even if he was just walking distance away. There's more urgency, urologically speaking, to voicing a deep concern for heading off diseases of the prostate gland.

That's his goal to go.

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