A Legend in His Own Town Golden Arm: The Colts' most celebrated player talks about life as a legend, about salaries high and low, and about that other Baltimore NFL football team one that shall remain nameless.

Catching up with ... Johnny U.

March 23, 1996|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

Amid the quiet elegance of McCafferty's restaurant in Mount Washington, near the baby grand piano polished to a high gloss, they have built a shrine to Johnny Unitas.

Hanging on the wall is the Hall of Fame quarterback's autographed Colts jersey, an oil painting of him barking signals at the line of scrimmage with that familiar, round-shouldered stoop, another painting of him dropping back to pass against the Buffalo Bills. There is also a photograph of him accepting the 1971 Super Bowl trophy with all the solemnity of a priest accepting a communion chalice.

Not 10 feet away on this rainy weekday afternoon, John Unitas sits sipping a Jack Daniel's and Coke, having graciously accepted a luncheon invitation from a reporter with the local fishwrap.

Of course, there's no such thing as a free lunch, even for the quarterback many consider the greatest to ever play the game. The quid pro quo here is that the reporter gets to pick John Unitas' brain on Baltimore's new NFL team, the former Cleveland Browns, and their owner Art Modell, who, until Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf refused to stand for the national anthem and Dennis Rodman wigged out and head-butted that referee, was the whipping boy for the national media and sports fans.

Right now, however, John Unitas has been asked what it feels like to be a legend in this town, the embodiment of the glory years of the late '50s and early '60s, when the Colts played in three league championship games, elevated the image of the NFL from that of a Podunk league, and won the hearts of an entire city.

Of this legend business, he tells this story: Not long ago, he found himself at BWI airport with time to kill. So he bought a newspaper and headed to one of the lounges to grab a beer.

As he walked in, a voice next to him cried: "Brooks!"

Mr. Unitas paid no attention, but the voice persisted: "Brooks! Brooks Robinson!" And when John Unitas looked up, a man was smiling and waving at him.

By now, of course, there was every reason to suspect he was in the presence of that most annoying of all celebrity hangers-on: the certified nut case.

"Are you talking to me?" Mr. Unitas said. "I'm not Brooks Robinson."

"Bull-- !" the guy said sweetly. "You're Brooks Robinson! I just spent last weekend with you down at the Eastern Shore."

Well. At this point, most of us in Mr. Unitas' situation would be edging toward the exit and motioning for the bartender to call security.

But Mr. Unitas kept his cool, even when the man persisted and demanded to see his driver's license.

When it was produced, the man examined it and said: "God damn! You're not Brooks Robinson! Well, do you play golf? Why don't you come down to North Carolina and we'll play some golf?"

At this, John Unitas throws back his head and laughs, a boyish laugh that seems to fill the room and vibrate back to the piano, where a couple of fans are visiting his shrine.

This May, hard as it is to believe, John Unitas turns 63. A survivor of 18 years in pro football, he's had celebrated financial troubles, two total knee replacements and suffered a heart attack three years ago. But his face is largely unlined, and when he shakes your hand he has the grip of a blacksmith if they even have blacksmiths anymore.

These days, he's an executive vice president with Matco Electronics, an upstate New York company that designs high-tech circuit boards. He's also a traveling spokesman for Merck Pharmaceuticals and its Benign Prostate Awareness Program, which urges men over the age of 50 to undergo an annual prostate exam.

As the most celebrated of the old Colts, he's excited about Baltimore's new football team. Still, it takes him back to the cold, gray morning in 1984 when he turned on the television and discovered Bob Irsay had packed up his team as though it were so much Tupperware and moved it to Indianapolis in the middle of the night.

"To hear we're getting an NFL team after all these years " he says, voice trailing off. "I've always felt Baltimore was raped, basically, by [former general manager] Joe Thomas and Irsay. Baltimore always deserved to have a franchise, because in the years we were here, it was always a franchise to look up to."

He doesn't think much of Art Modell's attempts to buy the Colts' name back from the Irsays; vice president and general manager Jim Irsay was recently quoted as saying it would take a figure around $25 million, which most sane people would demand only if wearing a ski mask and waving a gun.

"The word greed stands right out on his forehead " John Unitas says. "Look, let's start with a brand new name. That era is over with. Let's allow the Colts name to stand for what it stands for at this point."

Giddy from three iced teas, the reporter begins tossing out proposed nicknames, inviting John Unitas to engage in a little free association while hoping the whole exercise is not too West Coast.


4 He makes a face like there's a hair in his soup.


"That's not supposed to be, uh, [politically] correct, is it?"

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