To little guys, conqueror of Giants was 1 of them to end

September 18, 2002|By MIKE PRESTON

SOME OF the most distinguished men in the history of the NFL attended the memorial service for John Unitas yesterday at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen.

Commissioner Paul Tagliabue was there, and so were owners Art Modell of the Ravens and Dan Rooney of the Pittsburgh Steelers. Hall of Fame Colts such as wide receiver Raymond Berry and defensive tackle Art Donovan paid their respects along with Ravens coaches present (Brian Billick) and past (Ted Marchibroda).

Eleven limousines lined the driveway outside the cathedral, where bagpipers played until the service began. A bell rang throughout the service for the man who turned pro football into America's No. 1 sport.

But of the approximately 2,000 in attendance, Unitas probably would have been the most proud of the fans who took some time off from work and came dressed in their painters outfits and maintenance and police uniforms.

For almost half a century, as a player and later a citizen, they were his kind of folks, and he was their kind of player. Unitas hit the streets in Baltimore as much as any patrolman who ever walked a beat.

"I remember him playing football, but I remember him more at the Golden Arm restaurant," said Dennis Todd, 43, a maintenance man at the cathedral. "You would always see him here or there, around the city, just a down-to-earth guy. He was always glad to meet the fans, asked how you were doing, tell you he was glad to meet you.

"I think he would have been a bit embarrassed about this big to-do," said Todd. "He was ... just like a normal, everyday person. He didn't want to be treated like a big-time celebrity. He treated fans like they were his friends."

Unitas and his blue-collar fans were loyal to each other to the end. Some of them arrived as early as 4 a.m. to get a seat and pay homage to the player known for his crew cut, black high-top spikes and cool demeanor.

Frank Hagan, 57, is retired, but does carpentry and painting part-time. He was painting a railing for a friend yesterday when his friend got the urge to pay respects to Unitas one more time. Hagan stood outside the memorial service with paint- stained shorts.

He felt good about himself.

"It was my friend's house, so he went inside and got changed," said Hagan. "I wished he had said something sooner, but when you get the urge, you just have to go. What can you say about the man [Unitas] that hasn't already been said? If you met him once, you knew him. A lot of people in this town knew him.

"If he [Unitas] knew I was dressed like this outside his funeral, I don't think he would be mad or disappointed," Hagan said. "He was a working-class guy."

Unitas became the epitome of blue-collar Baltimore because he played in the era when General Motors and Bethlehem Steel were two of the major industries in the area. He fit in, but he also just happened to put on shoulder pads on Sunday and eventually become the best quarterback to ever play the game.

Edward Carter, 71, went to a lot of the Colts games at Memorial Stadium. He drove a truck by day but became a super fan on the weekend. Yesterday, he sat outside the cathedral in a wheelchair. When Unitas' sons carried the casket up the steps, his mind shot back to the 1950s and '60s.

"Wow, he won a lot of games for us. Back then, there was a lot of racism," said Carter, who is African-American, "but this team was just a team. They didn't get into any of that. They had one common goal of trying to win a game. John Unitas was so down-to-earth, an ordinary fellow with a gift.

"He was never into records or anything like that," said Carter. "He wouldn't like all this fuss, but he probably got used to it. When that man played, he played to win."

Michael Perez drove from Clifford, Mich., to Baltimore for yesterday's service. She wore a No. 19 patch over her heart. "I've just been in love with him for 45 years," she said.

James Carmichael, who is in his 40s, said: "He was one of our heroes. He was always accessible and a part of the community. He was unique in that manner, and there will never be another one like him. My hat's off to him. I had great respect for the man."

It's a respect that will be passed on for generations. Unitas was an avid supporter of several area charities, and would spend hours signing autographs.

Larry Cardwell, 36, and his older brother, Gary, 40, drove three hours from Newport News, Va. Each is a sales manager at a car dealership. Gary got a chance to see Unitas play at the end of his career, but Larry didn't. But Larry knows just about as much about Unitas as his brother.

"We had an uncle who lived in Annapolis and Towson, and we would come up to watch the Colts play," said Larry Cardwell. "My brother is a huge Unitas fan. He always told me about the old Colts. When they left town, it was one of the saddest days I can remember. When the Ravens came back, we immediately bought season tickets."

Catherine Lobo, 42, is a nurse who lives in Roland Park. Her three sons go to the same church as some of Unitas' grandchildren. They've heard about John Unitas.

"He was really good," said James Lobo, 13.

"I know he played for the Colts, that his number was 19 and he was called The Golden Arm," said John Lobo, 10.

One other thing: He really was just like the rest of us.

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