On the links is fair way to judge traits of man

1933 - 2002

John Unitas

September 12, 2002|By Michael E. Waller | Michael E. Waller,SUN STAFF

I had met Johnny Unitas a couple of times for a few minutes before last Thursday and didn't by any stretch of imagination know him.

But you would have never known that had you been in our foursome last week at the Caves Valley Golf Club.

Johnny U., who died yesterday; John Schuerholz, general manager of the Atlanta Braves; and Mike Gill, a friend and colleague at the Baltimore Country Club, were to participate that evening in the opening of the renovated football stadium at Towson University. They wanted to get in a round of golf at Caves before the event. I was delighted to be asked to arrange it.

Johnny U. greeted me as if I were a long-lost buddy.

"Great to be playing with you," he said. "Great to be your partner."

I could hardly believe it. Here I was with the world's greatest quarterback, who became one of my heroes when as a teenager I watched him on television lead his Colts time after time from behind to pull out victory. You didn't have to be from Baltimore - I was from Illinois - to admire his skills and leadership and his high-top shoes.

And he's telling me it's great to be my partner.

We started on the back nine holes, and I noticed the glove the minute he teed up on No. 10 to hit his drive. He had a special one on his right hand with a long strap dangling from it.

He placed the club's shaft in his right hand, wrapped the long strap around it and his hand and tightened it with its Velcro fastening.

"What's the strap for?" I asked.

"Well," Johnny said, "I have no muscles or nerves remaining in my hand and arm, so I have to use this strap to hang onto a club."

I was impressed with how well he struck the ball.

But what struck me was how he explained the strap.

Matter-of-factly. No complaints. No regrets. This is just the way it is, after you take an 18-year beating in the National Football League.

"Isn't this kind of a bummer?" I asked him.

"Nah," Johnny says. "I won't be breaking 80 anymore, but so what? It's a beautiful day, a beautiful golf course, and I'm having fun with my friends. It's just great to be alive."

Despite his hand condition, he seemed in good shape physically. Like nearly all golfers at Caves Valley, he walked the entire course with the caddies. I have a bad back and rode in a cart.

I don't know what he shot for the round because I had to leave after nine holes. But he and I won the first nine by three holes, and he hit several excellent shots.

Amazing - a 19 handicap with no right hand.

Even more amazing were his parting words: "I'm grateful for you having us out."

Johnny U. - a common man of uncommon talent and even more uncommon grace. No wonder he was so beloved in Baltimore.

Michael E. Waller is publisher and CEO of The Baltimore Sun.

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