`We won't see another Johnny Unitas'

At Colts legend's funeral, mourners recall man who excelled as player, father

John Unitas

1933 - 2002

September 18, 2002|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,SUN STAFF

Mourners said goodbye to John Unitas yesterday, evoking memories of a steely, Hall of Fame quarterback and a tender father who stayed close to his coal-shoveling roots.

Cardinal William H. Keeler said he found "sanctity" in the man who threw footballs as if they were missiles but never lost his human touch.

"He was the kind of man who would shake the hand of a homeless person and say to that person it was an honor to shake his hand," said Keeler, the archbishop of Baltimore, who celebrated the funeral Mass at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in North Baltimore.

Unitas, who led the Baltimore Colts to three championships in the 1958, 1959 and 1970 seasons, died Sept. 11 of a heart attack at 69.

Nearly 2,000 mourners, some of whom lined up hours before the 9:15 a.m. start of services, filled the Gothic cathedral, with its soaring, 90-foot-high ceiling.

Former Colts such as Art Donovan and Gino Marchetti filled the upper sanctuary. Unitas' wife, Sandra, other family members, the mayor and many VIPs sat in the front rows of the main seating area.

White mums and lilies, tied with blue ribbon, decorated the sanctuary, along with an oil painting of the player. The painting showed No. 19 from the rear, standing in his blue-and-white Colts uniform against a black background.

A tolling of church bells and a mournful bagpipe at 9:10 a.m. announced the arrival of Unitas' casket. Covered in flowers, it was borne by his six sons and trailed by his two daughters. Sunlight filtered through red, yellow and blue stained-glass windows, faintly lighting the gray limestone of the cathedral's grand interior.

One eulogy was delivered by Frank Gitschier, the man who, as an assistant football coach at the University of Louisville, recruited the player who would go on to be the school's most famous athlete. He recalled visiting a young Unitas at his home in Pittsburgh, where his widowed mother was raising four children and running the family's coal-delivery business.

"I made two promises to his mother: that he would attend Mass on Sunday and that he would graduate," said Gitschier, who, in 1979, delivered Unitas' introduction to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

An unlikely prospect, Unitas at 6 feet tall, 138 pounds, was small for football, but he compensated with an incomparable toughness and a dedication to hard work, Gitschier said.

Unitas retired in 1974 after 17 seasons with the Colts and one with the San Diego Chargers. He played in 10 Pro Bowls and became the first quarterback to throw for 40,000 yards. Unitas left the game with 22 NFL records, including 47 consecutive games with a touchdown pass, most completed passes (2,830) and most touchdown passes (290).

Supportive father

The late player's first-born, Janice Unitas DeNittis, recalled a father who watched game film in the basement while bouncing a baby on his knee. And she remembered the man who shoveled a half-foot of snow off the family's patio so it could be sprayed with water and used as an ice rink by the kids.

Later, he remained unflaggingly supportive when his children took disparate career paths: police officer, actor, businessman, mechanic.

The aspiring actor, Joseph, said in his eulogy that his father's famous bluntness wasn't limited to the huddle. When he recently shared with his father a script he had written, the assessment was harsh. "He said it was crap. He said for me to write something better because I could," Joseph said.

"I hope you like this better, Dad. I love you and will miss you forever," he said, drawing applause and tears.

Three other children also spoke, delivering eulogies or reading from the Bible: Kenneth, John Jr. and Paige.

Speaker after speaker swapped Unitas stories like cherished trading cards. Raymond Berry, a wide receiver who combined with Unitas to form one of football's most productive scoring units, remembered a team leader who took punishing blows from opposing players but kept playing.

"You elevated all of us to unreachable levels, whether on the field or in the stands. You made the impossible possible," Berry said.

Prayers for the knees

Even Keeler had a Unitas story. He said that when he was a young priest, he visited a Carmelite monastery where the nuns would, upon written request, pray for people and causes. He had to explain one day to the cloistered nuns why someone had asked them to pray for the knees of a man whom they had not heard of - a man named John Unitas.

Those knees served Unitas on the field as well as in his faith, when he knelt in prayer, the cardinal said.

"He humbly and generously dealt with everyone, whether a grandson trying to learn football or an autograph seeker catching him by surprise," Keeler said.

As the casket was carried out of the cathedral and loaded into the hearse, a small plane flew overhead towing a banner with a message familiar to fans of the Colts' glory years at Memorial Stadium: "Unitas We Stand."

The casket was closed throughout the service, and the body will be cremated.

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