Special talent, regular guy

John Unitas: The legendary former Colts quarterback awed people with his play on the football field and his graciousness off it.

John Unitas

1933 - 2002

September 15, 2002|By John Eisenberg | John Eisenberg,SUN STAFF

Johnny Unitas' football life was remarkable, a royal blare of records, championships and honors. His life after football was another matter, grounded in the touchstones of normalcy more familiar to those who cheered for him.

Like a lot of former players, and for that matter, a lot of people, he experienced ups and downs with his health, money and business career as he raised two sets of kids, mowed the lawn, played golf, had some laughs and valued his time with his family and friends.

One of pro football's all-time greats was an everyman once he put away his uniform, and to know him well was to know that the contradiction didn't bother him. In fact, he wouldn't have wanted it any other way.

"He viewed himself as an average person," said Lee Stotsky, a Baltimore sales manager who played golf and ate lunch with Unitas for more than three decades. "I went a lot of places with John and saw him interact with many people, and the guy who had flash and a lot of money, that didn't impress him. That wasn't his thing. He related more to the average guy.

"In fact, that's what he wanted, just to be one of the guys.

"I don't think he liked celebrity, to be honest. As long as I knew him, we almost never talked about football. What he had done on the field, what everyone else thought was so great, to him, it was just his job. He didn't really think it was special."

Clearly, two elements were responsible for Unitas' common-man perspective, which was as steadfast as his will in the last two minutes of a close game. Born in 1933, he was raised in a working-class family in Pittsburgh during the Depression; his father, a coal deliveryman, died when he was 5, and his mother worked two jobs to raise four kids. Then, later, like many in his football generation, Unitas missed out on the big money that today's players earn, consigning him to a workingman's life instead of one of wealthy seclusion in a gated community on a golf course.

Though he yearned for more, he was satisfied with his lot and never developed the sense of entitlement and superiority so prevalent among today's athletes.

"For all he had accomplished in his career, he just did not have the aura of someone who felt he was more important than you," said Wayne Edwards, the athletic director at Towson University, where Unitas had recently began working part-time as a fund-raiser and consultant before his sudden death Wednesday of a heart attack. "Whenever we spoke, he acted as if I was the only person he needed to talk to that day."

Unitas and his second wife, Sandra, whom he married in 1973, lived for many years in a large colonial house on a 19-acre farm in Baldwin. They raised their three children, Joe, Chad and Paige, and also tended to a few cows and goats.

"It was a big, beautiful, old farmhouse. John would get on a tractor and cut the grass himself," said Richard Sammis, the Baltimore car dealer known as "Mr. Nobody," who was one of Unitas' longtime friends.

"Sometimes you'd get there and John would be out in the barn shoveling the poop," said Linda Miller, an account manager at a Timonium headhunting firm who worked in the same building as Unitas and became a close friend.

Business is bumpy

Though he could hardly take a step around town without being accosted by smiling strangers eager to share their football memories, Unitas spent his days just as many of his fans did, working to make a buck. His road was seldom smooth. Many of his business ventures lost money and he hit bottom in 1991, declaring bankruptcy when an electronics firm he had started with partners was unable to pay its bills.

Other failed businesses that Unitas oversaw through the years included a chain of bowling establishments, a prime-rib restaurant and an air freight company. His dabble in Florida real estate turned out to include swampland.

"He had faith in his fellow man and a tendency to trust people until he found out he shouldn't," Stotsky said. "The reality is he got taken a few times."

Though always able to extricate himself and somehow make ends meet, he never hit the business home run. His last full-time job was with a national electronics firm that had an office in Timonium; he was a vice president until he parted ways with the company last year.

"He had good times and bad times, good luck and bad luck. It wasn't smooth, to say the least," Sammis said. "But it never bothered him. You never heard him say, `Aw, it's too much.' He just figured out a way to keep going."

The same was true with his health. He had both knees replaced, underwent heart bypass surgery in 1993 and dealt with a spate of injuries and conditions dating to his football days, most prominently the almost total loss of the use of his right hand due to a nerve condition. He submitted to several procedures to try to regain function, experiencing little success, and sought disability payments from the NFL, to no avail. Through it all, he seldom complained.

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