Unitas' funeral a fond farewell to our youth

September 19, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

IT WAS JOHN Unitas' funeral Tuesday, but it felt like the farewell to a whole generation's youth. A way of life passed in front of everybody's eyes. It was all those late Sunday afternoons with the daylight fading and the temperature plunging and the clock running out, and a hunched, bowlegged guy looking to pull one more desperate miracle out of his repertoire.

John Unitas slips away, and so does an era. Outside the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen on Tuesday, there was Jim DeWald. When Unitas was breaking in, DeWald went to Montebello Elementary and had Miss Cohn in the second grade. In the morning after the daily Pledge of Allegiance, he said, the class would listen to a song: the Baltimore Colts marching song.

That's not just a football team, pal. It's a municipal religion.

Not far from DeWald on Tuesday, there stood Eugene "Reds" Hubbe on the cathedral front steps. He carried a big blow-up poster of Unitas. "Thanks for the memories," it said. "Gimme a C," you wanted to say.

Bill Gattus stood next to Hubbe. For 14 seasons, he and Reds would lead cheers at Memorial Stadium, orchestrating their little piece of the 33rd Street madness.

Near them was John Ziemann, who held the Baltimore Colts band together all those years - "Come on, you Baltimore Colts ... "

And nearby was Jean Wisniewski, who was hostess at the Golden Arm on York Road for 14 years, and Gene Kozy, who had Kozy's Bar over at Potomac and Fleet in Highlandtown and used to run busloads to the ballpark every Sunday. " ... and put that ball across the line ... "

It was John Unitas' funeral, but it was a generation huddling to remind itself: In that distant era, we built a community around this man and this football team.

"Oh, I cried like a baby when I heard the news," said Bill Gattus.

"Every time I see somebody, the tears start welling up," said Reds Hubbe. He looked around at the big crowd gathering an hour before services started. "All them Sundays, all them Sundays."

It was a different Baltimore when Unitas arrived 46 autumns ago. It was a patchwork of clearly marked ethnic and racial pockets, separate communities too suspicious of each other to mix easily. It was a time when the public schools were just beginning the historic process of racial integration.

The ballpark brought us together. It gave us a comfortable common denominator. The Orioles, newly reborn, were trying to get it together before sparse crowds back then, but the Colts - every Sunday was the weekly insanity, the packed house, the beginnings of an all-embracing civic religion.

And Unitas stood there, shoulders hunched, legs bowed, at the heart of it.

"Hey, hon," a woman called to Reds Hubbe on Tuesday. Her name was Dianna Ford, and she and her husband, Bunky, boarded a bus 4:30 that morning in Crisfield to get to the funeral on time. She pointed to Hubbe's poster of Unitas.

"Hon," Ford said, "can I get a picture of my husband and you holding this up?"

And Hubbe and Gattus puffed out their chests, and Bunky Ford of Crisfield stood with them and the poster of John Unitas for a photo, and this, too, will be passed through the generations.

Inside the big cathedral, it was more of the same. Mike Gibbons sat in the back, carrying a dark blue bag. Gibbons heads the Babe Ruth Museum. A few months back, Unitas gave the museum all his memorabilia. Now Gibbons unzipped this dark blue bag. Inside was Unitas' old Baltimore Colts football helmet.

Joe DiBlasi, the former South Baltimore city councilman, reached down and ran his hands over the helmet. "Did you ever think you'd touch that?" he said. He had a little boy's awe in his voice, as though finding the mythical sword Excalibur. Or it was Indiana Jones finding the ark of the covenant.

"You know what this is all about?" DiBlasi said. He looked around. "It's all of us remembering our youth. It was all about running down to the park after school, and throwing the football around, and one guy saying, `I'm Unitas,' and the other saying, `I'm Raymond Berry.' That's how everybody in this town grew up. That's why we're here. Johnny Unitas was our youth."

We imagined it would never run out. We imagined there would always be Colts Corrals, and guys like Reds Hubbe and Bill Gattus leading cheers, and the Colts fight song echoing in schoolrooms. We imagined never-ending 15-cent hamburgers at Gino's and The Powerhouse with the Number 35 sauce when we'd "meetcha at Ameche's." We imagined the Baltimore Colts would never leave. We imagined Memorial Stadium would stand forever, and John Unitas would always be there on Sundays, where we'd all whisper prayers to whatever gods watched over football teams.

So we went to say goodbye this week to Unitas, and to all those traces of youth that we once naively imagined would be here forever.

As the crowd began to spill from the cathedral, an insurance salesman, Rick Spiegel, watched the mourners around him.

"You see these guys, and it's your childhood walking in front of you," he said. "It's our whole childhood, right here. I got up this morning and said, `What's more important, going to work or reliving my entire youth?'"

Or, in this case, bidding it a bittersweet farewell.

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