Young No. 19 models himself on original

September 21, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

THE SIGHT'S a familiar one to Baltimoreans: the skinny body, looking way too fragile for football, wearing a blue jersey with the number 19 and wearing black high top shoes.

From 1956 through 1972, that figure was one John Unitas, the best quarterback the National Football League has ever seen, who died Sept. 11 and was laid to rest Tuesday.

But this No. 19 doesn't play for the Colts. His blue jersey represents the Patterson High School Clippers. He doesn't wear his hair in a crewcut, but braided. His roots aren't Lithuanian-American, but African-American.

There are more similarities than differences between John Constantine Unitas and Charles Caughman, Patterson High School junior and backup quarterback on the varsity football team, ranked No. 8 in the area and a perennial state playoff contender.

Unitas was born into a working-class family in Pittsburgh. Caughman hails from a working-class family in another blue-collar town.

Unitas was so wraithlike coming out of high school that big colleges and universities passed on him. When Caughman showed up for his first practice as a freshman, Mark Junker, a Patterson assistant coach and defensive coordinator, sized him up.

"Is he in the sixth grade?" Junker asked when Caughman stepped onto the scale. That's how small Caughman was. Today, at 16, he's not much bigger, standing 5 feet, 8 1/2 inches tall and weighing 157 pounds.

But it's in the work ethic where Junker sees the most obvious parallel between Unitas and Caughman.

"The thing that's impressive about [Charles] is that he hasn't missed a practice in three years," Junker said. "It has to be due to the influence of Johnny Unitas. I'm sure the other kids have missed at least one practice. He's the only kid I can remember who's played on the junior varsity and just hung out after JV practice was over and came to the varsity practice to watch and learn the things we do."

Caughman was a backup junior varsity quarterback his freshman year, when the team went 9-1 and won the city championship.

His sophomore year he started on the JV and the team posted a 6-2 record. Junker hopes that Caughman will be a starter his senior year. If he does, he'll join such notable NFL Hall of Famers - like Colts receiver Raymond Berry and New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath - who didn't start until their senior year in high school.

So how was it that Caughman, this member of a hip-hop-crazed, me-first, I-was-born-entitled generation, became so enthralled with a throwback to the old school-like ultimate team player Unitas?

"My grandfather introduced me to him in 1995," Caughman said, "when I first started playing football. He told me, `Since you're starting this, sit down and watch television and let the professional players teach you something.'"

Part of that watching included tuning in ESPN Classic. Watching Unitas soon became regular fare for young Caughman.

"I just sat down and watched Johnny Unitas and said, `Maybe I can do the stuff he does.' I saw how he took charge of his team," Caughman said. "He had his own style and did things his way. I figured maybe I can be like him - someday take charge and put a team on my back and carry a team."

Four years ago, Caughman asked his youth league football coach if he could try out for quarterback.

He has been playing the position ever since. He took to wearing No. 19 and the black high top shoes as a tribute to Unitas.

Caughman's grandfather is an old-school Baltimore Colts fan. Unitas was his favorite. He cried when he learned Unitas had died and told his grandson about it when he came home from football practice.

Caughman was so shaken, he went to his room and stayed the rest of the night, not wanting to talk to anybody.

Junker, who also is Caughman's homeroom teacher, overheard another player tell Caughman the next day, "Charles, your boy died last night." Noticing Caughman's dejection, Junker probed further and learned that the youth was, indeed, a Johnny U. fan.

Caughman's favorite Unitas memory is of his performance in the 1958 Colts-New York Giants championship game. (After practice Wednesday, Caughman spent the rest of the day watching ESPN Classic, which gave a 9-hour tribute to the Colts legend.)

Caughman even knew of the notorious "body bag" game with the Chicago Bears in 1960, where Unitas, with blood oozing from his nose, packed it with mud and dirt and then went out and hurled a winning touchdown toss to Lenny Moore.

"He's a refreshingly upstanding young man," Junker said of Caughman. One who, Junker could have added, Unitas would have felt honored to count among his fans.

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