On `Golden Arm,' NFL needs to check its heart

May 09, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

What John Unitas represents to football and America deserves more than this -- a lame right hand that is almost useless, the direct result of an injury sustained in a game the Baltimore Colts played more than 30 years ago.

Ironically, the legendary "Golden Arm" of Unitas, who passed for more than 40,000 yards in a glittering Hall of Fame career, was so severely damaged as a result of being hurt against the Dallas Cowboys in an exhibition on Sept. 7, 1968, that he can hardly comb his hair, pick up a newspaper or lift a coffee cup -- no exaggeration.

The ailment he suffered has not brought benefits or compensation of any kind, which is deplorable. Stop to consider he was hurt in an industry in which players are exposed to physical contact, pain and trauma -- the effects of which don't become apparent until later in life, which is what has happened to Unitas.

There has to be a responsibility, a full degree of accountability, when an employer has an employee hurt on the job, which in this case can be fully documented via film of that infamous exhibition at the Cotton Bowl.

The NFL, with all its affluence, shouldn't be able to avoid or sidestep the Unitas problem. That he was one of its showcase performers, winning games and packing stadiums with ticket-buying fans, only adds to public interest and concern. However, the same consideration should be afforded every player involved in a sport that endangers health and welfare and then, subsequently, is confronted with the aftermath of a debilitating injury.

To let Unitas, who turned 66 on Friday, languish with only one hand that's fully mobile is a disgrace to a game that takes all the best a young athlete has to give and then disposes of him without concern or even a thimbleful of compassion -- as if he's to be used and discarded as one might do with an old rag doll. Is the NFL so successful that it has forgotten what Unitas and other players contributed? Is it devoid of basic human decency?

To see Unitas sign autographs is a troublesome experience. The middle three fingers on his right hand don't work, so he improvises by holding a pen or pencil between his thumb and little finger. Then he writes his name, which becomes a personal struggle.

Two years ago, Unitas underwent five hours of surgery after doctors decided what amounted to a considerable degree of right-arm paralysis was correctable. The ulnar nerve was moved to its proper location, ligaments were repaired and relocated, and bone fragments removed. Then came four months of intense, follow-up rehabilitation. Unfortunately, there was no change in his condition.

After the 1968 game in Dallas, returning on the team plane, he said, "It's real sore, puffed up, black and blue," which for him, this man of few complaints, was an unusual admission. Lenny Moore, who was in his first year of retirement and handling a television role, was moved to remark: "I've known my man John since 1956, and that's the first time I've ever heard him admit he had pain."

In retrospect, the season of 1968 was all but over for Unitas because of the injury. He threw only 32 passes the entire schedule, as Earl Morrall became the emergency quarterback, and Unitas spent his time taking treatments. It was obvious to press-box observers that the injury had taken away from his touch with the ball, especially on short- to medium-range passes.

"I can't raise it or straighten it out, and it hurts when I try to do something, like lifting," he answered when asked to describe what he was feeling. Unitas came back to play six more years, overcoming, at least, in limited measure, the difficulty of throwing but never quite amassing the imposing statistics he had been putting in the records.

He says he has been told there's no recourse to settling his situation with a lawsuit and that he's not entitled to remuneration or an award by the courts. The explanation he heard is he waited too long to institute possible legal action and that such a move should have been made before he was 55 years old.

"But I didn't have the problem until I was older, in my 60s," he says. "There was no way to do that before I turned 55 because the residual part of the injury hadn't become apparent. Any such legal redress then would have been fraudulent, not legitimate, and I don't think anyone wants to listen to claims that are invented from fiction."

Unitas, true to character, hasn't made the condition of his troubled hand an issue for family and friends. But if ever an individual, in whatever line of work, deserved compensation, although belated, for being partially incapacitated, then his case is truly worthy of study by the proper authorities and league officials.

It's incongruous to believe that any jury, apprised of the facts, would not declare in favor of John Unitas, who gave so much of himself to the game and took so little away, plus an injury that reminds him continually of the unfair price in pain he had to pay to play.

Pub Date: 5/09/99

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