Hero for a working-class town

Match: Friends and fans recall John Unitas as a gritty, big-hearted man who perfectly fit the city where he played football for nearly two decades.

1933 - 2002

John Unitas

September 12, 2002|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

They remembered the quarterback, of course, the gritty, big-handed athlete who consistently and calmly led the Baltimore Colts to football greatness in the late 1950s and '60s, electrifying an entire city.

But they also recalled the unassuming fellow who worked at Bethlehem Steel during the off-season for extra cash. Someone who would turn up at a cancer benefit for a woman he didn't know as a favor to a friend. A man who was buddies with his barber.

From City Hall to the American Legion hall, from Little Italy's boccie courts to local bars and beyond, fans and friends and admirers paused to remember Johnny Unitas, who died yesterday of a heart attack at age 69.

"Baltimore you always think of as a working-class town, and we ended up with a working-class hero," said director Barry Levinson, who celebrated his hometown's Colts obsession in the 1982 movie Diner. "It was a perfect match - Baltimore and Unitas."

In 1956, the year Unitas came to Baltimore after being cut by the Pittsburgh Steelers, he was announced to the crowd as "Uni-TASS." It did not take long, though, for No. 19, the Golden Arm, to become "the biggest hero we had," Levinson said.

The on-field heroics - the breathtaking victory over the New York Giants in the 1958 championship game was but the best-known example - mesmerized fans. Years later, even as the Orioles became one of baseball's best teams, the toughest ticket in town was a Colts game.

"You woke up in Baltimore on Sunday morning when the Colts were here and you could just feel it in the air," said Baltimore County Executive C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger.

Joseph J. DiBlasi, a former Baltimore City Councilman, remembers being at Memorial Stadium in December 1956 as Unitas marched down the field. DiBlasi, 10 at the time, can still picture Unitas connecting with wide receiver Jim Mutscheller for a last-second, game-winning score.

"That touchdown pass I remember vividly," he said.

It is hard to underestimate the fervor with which fans cheered on the team, and especially Unitas, throughout the 1960s.

"During the heyday of the Baltimore Colts, the whole town rallied around his leadership," said former Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro III. "I knew him personally. He was a tough guy and a great guy and had a great sense of humor."

Word of Unitas' death traveled quickly yesterday afternoon. On a day when the country marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some Unitas fans found his death competing for their emotional attention.

"In a way it's as significant for me as reliving everything that happened a year ago, his dying today of all days," said Ray Marocco Jr., 52, of Lutherville, who often went to games in the 1960s.

At the 4100 Club in Brooklyn Park, a local restaurant and bar lined with autographed Unitas photos, customers recalled an old-time player who had an easy way about him and always had time for his fans.

"He'd walk in and the man would always remember your name," said Joe Williams, 54, of Baltimore. Richard Hartlove, 62, of Dundalk, said fans related to Unitas because he did not hold himself above others.

"John Unitas - he was just a real gentleman," said Hartlove. "Easygoing. Never shied away from those who wanted to go meet him. Always humble with his receipt of praise."

Unitas, who began going to the club with other players in the 1950s, rarely missed an annual Easter party that owners Manny and Dino Spanomanolis held for neighborhood kids. In one photo, Unitas shows up at the Easter party on crutches.

"I loved the man like a brother," said Manny Spanomanolis.

On the field, Unitas was not a hot dog. He did not dance in the end zone or preen for cameras. Stoicism was more his style, even when he was bruised and battered.

"Now you get a finger cut, and you're out of the game. He'd go out with his face slashed," said state comptroller and former mayor William Donald Schaefer, who said news of Unitas' sudden death hit him "like a punch in the belly."

After practices, Unitas and receiver Raymond Berry were known to stay on the field long after the others had left, practicing pass patterns.

Unitas showed a determination to win, and when the game was on the line, fans recalled an astounding steeliness as he marched the team downfield.

"He never showed the emotion. It was almost like the classic Western hero," Levinson said. "Because he never showed emotion, it made us even more emotional."

Last night in Little Italy, a sadness fell over the boccie ball courts where wives, husbands, sons and daughters turned out for an evening game.

Among the rollers was Guy Platania, Unitas' barber for the past 25 years. To him, Unitas was a down-to-earth customer who often joked or whistled on his way into the shop, Progressive You, near York and Timonium roads.

Unitas was also Platania's neighbor on Timonium Road. The two exchanged Christmas cards, and when Platania turned 60, Unitas was there to help him celebrate.

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