Unitas brings memories, but nostalgia left to fans

March 21, 2002|By Michael Olesker

JOHN UNITAS glanced at a TV monitor high on a distant wall, like a quarterback spotting a secondary receiver downfield. The guy always had such great peripheral vision. Spread before him were sculptures and trophies and a crowd packed into the Babe Ruth Museum. But Unitas kept looking deep to the monitor, where it showed a grainy black-and-white game film he hadn't seen in half a century.

It was the old Baltimore Colts quarterback in his youth, at St. Justin's High School in Pittsburgh, where Unitas was ducking a linebacker while a coach named Max Carey hollered from the sidelines and kids named Tom Boyle and Rich Keeling tried to throw protective blocks.

He still remembers their names. It's a lifetime since he scrambled out of that tough Pittsburgh adolescence, and 46 years since that famous 65-cent telephone call that brought Unitas to Baltimore. And, quicker than a two-minute drill, three decades have slipped past since Unitas retired from pro football.

Now he was assuring that the traces of his story will remain here -- appropriately, at the Babe Ruth Museum. Early in the last century, it was Ruth more than anyone who made baseball part of the American psyche. At mid-century, it was Unitas more than anyone who made pro football part of that same athletic devotional. Now the museum will contain the primary artifacts of the two greatest sports figures of two of our greatest national passions.

"What are you thinking?" Unitas was asked now by a guy who saw him watching his old high school video.

"Boy, I was slow," Unitas laughed.

"You were never a sentimental type," the guy said. "Does this stuff ... ?

"No, I'm not," Unitas said. "I'm just not that kind of guy."

He will leave sentiment to others. On Tuesday, Unitas donated his personal collection of football memorabilia to the museum, noting, "It belongs to Baltimore." A generation of those who watched Unitas fading into the pocket, who remembered the old "Unitas We Stand" banner at Memorial Stadium and 17 seasons of Sunday afternoons, will feel a collective lump in the throat. But not Unitas.

It was always one of his great strengths. Others felt the emotions of the moment flooding over them, but he kept his cool, did his job, hung tough. When it was over, he was appreciative, but never gushy.

Emotions, he always said, he saved for "kids and animals."

So he said he was "honored" to donate his memorabilia to the Babe Ruth folks, but happy to leaven all nostalgia with humor. That Most Valuable Trophy he won in high school? "I was so well-known," Unitas said, "that they misspelled my name." The 1970 NFL Man of the Year trophy? "Sometimes they give you trophies just for showing up."

And the famous high-topped shoes Unitas wore, now ensconced behind glass? "I've thrown 'em out five times, but my wife kept bringing 'em back," Unitas said. He looked at his wife, Sandy, standing nearby with a few of their kids. "She said, `They do not belong to you any more.'"

Then there was a photo, from a few years ago, of Unitas and actor Richard Gere. Unitas had a walk-on role in a movie called Runaway Bride, shot around here.

"I was the bride," Unitas laughed.

Actually, they sat him on a chair outside a store in Hampden. Gere's been smacked around by a newspaper-wielding Julia Roberts, and he comes staggering out of the store, where Unitas looks up at him.

"Hell," says the old football quarterback, "I've been hit harder than that."

"By her?" Gere says.

"No, by my first wife," Unitas says.

"And your second wife," Sandy Unitas added as her husband finished telling the story. The scene never made the final movie cut.

But other memorabilia has endured from the remarkable Unitas career, and will be displayed -- first at the Ruth birthplace on Emory Street, and eventually in a John Unitas wing at Camden Station. That's the former railroad station, at the north end of Oriole Park.

For several years now, officials have talked and talked about converting it into a sports museum. At last check, they were still talking and talking.

Such a museum would remind us of the town's rich sports heritage, and the unlikeliest of its beginnings. Of those such as Unitas, for example. At the gathering Tuesday, he remembered his first entrance into Memorial Stadium. It was the annual intrasquad game played for the Police Boys Club benefits.

"I looked around," Unitas said, "and there were 45,000 screaming people. For a scrimmage. I knew right then, this town was something special."

Now he looked up again, toward the TV monitor high on that distant wall. It was the high school Unitas, with a linebacker bearing down on him and Unitas standing his ground and letting go with a long pass downfield. Years later, the pass landed in a place called Orrsville. Remember Orrsville? The old Unitas memorabilia will help everybody find the way back.

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