Public's support touches family

Tributes to Unitas include moment of silence before each NFL game tomorrow

John Unitas

1933 - 2002

September 14, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Family members have been deeply touched by the outpouring of emotion and support in the aftermath of Hall of Fame quarterback John Unitas' death, his son Chad said yesterday.

"It's honestly unbelievable. I know who my father is and was as an athlete, but the absolute support and outpouring of love is just unbelievable," said Chad Unitas, 23, of Lutherville.

The legendary quarterback, who played 17 seasons for the Baltimore Colts beginning in 1956, suffered a heart attack and died about 3 p.m. Wednesday while exercising at a Timonium physical therapy center. He was 69.

Since then, tributes have been announced across the country, including a planned moment of silence before each NFL game tomorrow. More than 36,000 people have signed an online petition asking that the Ravens' stadium be named in his honor.

Having the stadium named for his father, he said, "would be great and if they wanted to do that I know my family would be so honored. It's all so touching to have the fans even think of that."

Chad Unitas, who attends Towson University and plans to be a professional golfer, said, "I honestly didn't know I had so many friends. I've been getting calls and e-mails. There are no words that can express it."

Though his father had undergone emergency heart surgery in 1993, there had been no recent warnings of ill health, he said.

"We knew he had a heart problem, but everything seemed OK. I called him that day and asked him if he wanted to go and get lunch. He said he had already eaten, so I said, `We'll do it tomorrow.' I said, `OK, Pop, I love you,' " Unitas said.

To accommodate the eulogies, the family has added a 9:15 a.m. memorial service to Tuesday's schedule. The funeral mass will begin at 10 a.m. and be conducted by Cardinal William H. Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore.

Both services are open to the public and will be held at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen at 5200 N. Charles St.

The family requests no cameras at either service.

Raymond Berry, who, with Unitas, formed one of football's most remarkable quarterback-receiver duos, will deliver a eulogy on behalf of their mutual teammates at the memorial service.

"It's hard to realize that this has happened. This is such a shock," said Berry, 69, who lives in Denver.

Berry was a Baltimore Colt from 1955 to 1967 and caught a then-record 631 passes. He caught a record 12 passes in the 1958 championship game won by the Colts in overtime.

Also speaking at the service will be Frank Gitschier, who, as an assistant coach at the University of Louisville, recruited Unitas out of high school.

Gitschier, a retired FBI agent and chairman of the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Educational Foundation, lives in Louisville and introduced the player at his 1979 induction into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"This is going to be very hard for me. I had a relationship with him for 52 years. It was like a family relationship," Gitschier, 77, said.

One of Unitas' daughters, Paige Unitas of Baldwin, is also expected to speak.

During his career, the two-time Most Valuable Player recipient played in 10 Pro Bowls, captured three championships for the Colts and became the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards.

In other tributes:

The Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, at 216 Emory St., will have free admission tomorrow, Monday and Tuesday so fans may view a display of Unitas artifacts the player recently donated to the museum. A condolence book will be available for people to sign.

The Ravens have received permission from the NFL to place No. 19 - which Unitas wore during his Colts career - on the back of their helmets for the rest of the season.

The NFL has ordered all league and team flags at stadiums this weekend and Monday to be flown at half-staff. Commissioner Paul Tagliabue has also ordered teams to observe a moment of silence just before kickoff, when the kicking and receiving teams are on the field.

He rejected, however, a plan by Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning to wear black high-top shoes in honor of Unitas, who made the footwear a trademark. NFL spokesman Steve Alic said the NFL is enforcing its rules on the standardization of uniforms.

"It's an issue of professionalism. We are paying tribute to Johnny. This is how we can best collectively pay tribute to what Johnny did for the league," Alic said.

Manning told the Indianapolis Star yesterday that he had given up the idea after a team official indicated the league would impose a "horrendous" fine. "One thing I don't want to do is create a controversy. Someone has passed away," Manning said.

An online petition to have the Ravens stadium renamed for Unitas surpassed the 36,000 mark yesterday. The Ravens have said they need a commercial sponsor to replace the bankrupt PSINet Corp. in order to retain quality players. The petition asks that that decision be reconsidered.

There has been no indication the team would consider forgoing selling the name of the building, which could attract $2 million to $5 million a year, depending upon how a deal is structured, but some have suggested the field might be named for Unitas.

Minority investor Steve Bisciotti, who in 2004 plans to exercise an option to purchase the rest of the team's shares, said yesterday, "Out of respect for a man I admire and his family I find it inappropriate to have a discussion like this at this time."

Sun staff writer Mike Preston contributed to this article.

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