Unitases take anti-abuse fight personally

March 19, 2000|By JOHN STEADMAN

When John Unitas first learned the facts of sexual abuse and its residual trauma, the devastating message came from a deeply personal source. Unimpeachable. His wife.

She talked from the perspective of a victim because, unfortunately, that's what she had been. The damage incurred may linger deep within. A darkened, indelible memory stored in a vault of the subconscious for, yes, years, even decades.

Sandra and John, the Unitases, have united in a cause that merits respect and the most intimate of human attention. Sandra has talked at conferences on the subject, lobbied in Annapolis and at the national level in Washington for stronger laws to be passed against pedophiles.

The Unitases are working in behalf of Second Step, Inc., an organization that serves and assists victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. John and Sandra are to be honored together at a fund-raising event to be held at the Hyatt Regency in Baltimore on March 30, where a silent and live auction will be part of the program.

Unitas never met a cause he didn't want to help, when available. He has answered calls from the USO to go to Germany and Vietnam, to hold a leadership role in the search for missing in action (MIA) military personnel, the fights against cystic fibrosis, prostate cancer, child abuse via the protective custody of the Ed Block Courage House and the John Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation in Louisville.

He has served those and maybe 101 other charities.

Sandra Unitas was a little girl, amused by jumping rope and playing with paper dolls after school, growing up in Tallahassee, Fla., when her father damaged a sacred trust. He took advantage of her childhood.

Her mother, working long hours at Southern Bell, didn't immediately realize what was happening to Sandra and her sister. "Specifically, it was about six years ago," said John, "when I walked into a room at our house and she was watching a movie on the subject. Tears were rolling down her cheeks.

"She was upset and the true story that was being told struck a responsive chord with her. It brought an incident of the past into focus and she wanted to do something positive to help herself, even after the passage of so much time."

The next morning she contacted a lawyer and the district attorney's office to begin the process of filing an official report. Not only in Maryland, where she was living, but in Florida and Texas, where her father had moved.

By then it was 45 years after the fact, yet legal action was instituted -- only to be complicated by a variance of laws in three different states.

The accused denied the charges, yet was put on notice that daughter Sandra hadn't forgotten or forgiven what he had done to trample her innocence.

"I realize some women don't want to bring out what happened to them," said Sandra. "If they want to protect their privacy as to what may have occurred as children, then I understand and respect their feelings. But if it isn't brought to the attention of the authorities, or by making the general public aware of the dangers, then incidents of such painful circumstance will continue. I hope sharing my experiences has caused others to come forth and report what happened to them.

"There's even a strong difference in some families over whether the details should be told. I most certainly believe talking about the subject provides a catharsis, kind of a repairing of the psyche, as much as can be expected, over what was done in betraying little children."

John believes his wife's decision to go public with the matter in 1995 marked a positive change in her life. "I think it has done wonders, that it was the only way to go," he said. "Women, or men, either, shouldn't have to live in secrecy about abuse or violence. I'm sure as I was growing up things like that happened, but from all I can learn it's more prevalent today."

Sandra emphasizes how important her family has been to her through the psychological trauma. "My mother, Mary, has my undying thanks for passing on to her 5-year-old daughter her will to survive and for believing me.

"My husband, John, has supported me 100 percent throughout the years of healing. This has not always been easy for him. He is still my No. 1 supporter.

Through 28 years of marriage to John, I have finally overcome my fears and have grown to respect the role of a father. He has been a wonderful role model for both me and our children, Joey, Chad and Paige. They are often asked what it's like having a famous father. Their answer is always the same, `He's just my dad.' How fortunate they are, and so am I."

A friend, Claudia Grimm, has been deeply involved in preparing the Unitas salute at the benefit party. "I'm always cautious about using John's good name and reputation," said Sandra, "but Claudia has been a remarkable chairperson and this, I believe, will be a sellout."

Even more importantly, what Sandra Unitas has overcome -- abuse as a child and the scars that followed -- represent a momentous testimonial to a life well-lived. She's reaching out to other survivors to let them know they are not alone.

Tickets, at $50 each, may be ordered from Second Step, Inc. by calling 410-377-8111. The sponsor requests that in deference to the event, John Unitas not be approached for autographs.

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