In summer's sun, standing by a giant

Meeting Unitas was big day in a boy's life

September 14, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

In the photograph, he is the boy on the right, the one with the anxious look on his face. He stands just far enough from the center that if the photo had been cropped, or if the photographer had stood a few feet to the right, he might have forgotten his moment with Johnny Unitas.

Jack Cook was 9 years old when the photo was taken. He does not remember now, at 51, all the details of that day. It was the summer of 1960 and his parents had taken him and his big sister Barbara and his little brother Donald to training camp. The Colts were so much a part of their lives in the late 1950s and 1960s that his parents, as well as his Uncle Otts and Aunt Gloria, had season tickets. His grandmother babysat during Sunday games and put a pot roast in the oven at halftime so supper would be ready when they returned from Memorial Stadium. And once a year, the family climbed into the station wagon and rode from their home in Dundalk to the Westminster campus of Western Maryland College, where Jackie, as his mother Joyce still calls him, chased wayward footballs and watched the Greats play.

He doesn't recall playing under the bleachers the way his sister does. He remembers throwing footballs back onto the field; he remembers the end of the day, when tired Colts walked from the field to the lockers, when boys like him ran through the grass to watch, when he stood close enough to hear their cleats on the pavement and think Gene "Big Daddy" Lipscomb was scary. "They looked like giants to me," Jack says.

The boy in the photograph grew out of his dungarees and canvas sneakers and gave up his brush cut. He married, got a job in construction, moved to a place not far from the old neighborhood. Many years passed before he understood what he'd seen at those training camps.

He wishes he remembered where the scrap of paper he clutches in the photo came from, what Unitas said to him, what became of the autograph.

His sister Barbara, who is 52 and lives now in Ellicott City, lost her autograph, too. "It's one of those things from when you're a kid and you don't realize how significant it is," she says. "One day you're cleaning, and you don't keep it, and then one day you're sorry you didn't."

She is in the photograph, too. Those are her white sandals on the pavement behind Unitas, her toes. She was 10, and what she recalls is the desire not to be outdone. She and Jack used to recite player names and numbers to see who knew the most. If he was getting Unitas' autograph, so was she.

Jack says it was their parents' idea. Barbara says she went first. Jack was a shy kid between fourth and fifth grade, and he remembers waiting.

Both recall Sept. 25, 1960, the day the photo appeared in the paper and their Uncle Otts was the first of many callers. They remember other pictures in The Sun Magazine spread that day about Unitas off the field but not what was in those pictures: Not him standing outside his brick rancher in Towson, at the curb beside his 1959 Thunderbird; not his wife and children and their spaniel in the family room, cherry paneling behind them, and the shelves that collapsed under the weight of his trophies.

Jack's mother kept the photo until seven years ago, when she gave the family's only remaining copy to him. It was torn by then and in bad shape. Jack had it framed but the tape still showed so he hung it in his shed.

He didn't think much about it but when he did, he talked to his wife Helen about maybe asking Unitas to sign it, maybe bringing it inside.

"I wish I could have got that picture signed, but I never got around to it," Jack says. Like so many other Colts fans who had a moment with Unitas, Jack just never thought he would die.

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