Befitting A Legend

Sculptor Frederick Kail quarterbacked the Unitas statue drive in a way that'd make No.10 proud.

October 19, 2002|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Frederick Kail already had created a bigger-than-life bronze of Johnny Unitas, but this one was going to be even bigger and grander. With less than two months to go before the dedication ceremony, he called his longtime friend to kid him a little bit about the statue's scale.

"Back in '73, when I did the statue of him down at the University of Louisville [Unitas' alma mater], that one was 7 feet tall," Kail says while standing outside Ravens Stadium, watching as workers secure the foundation of the new statue, to be unveiled tomorrow. "And his reaction to it was, `Well, it'll give the pigeons something to sit on.' So I told him, `This one is 2 feet larger than the one in Louisville. It'll hold five more pigeons.' "

That would be the last time Kail spoke with Unitas, who died Sept. 11. "That was John," he says quietly. "He shunned all the accolades."

That Unitas is getting this one is due to the skill and perseverance of Kail, who got it into his head about three years ago that the greatest Colt of them all deserved a statue outside Baltimore's football stadium, regardless of the name of the team that plays there now. It was Kail who pitched the idea to the Ravens and the Maryland Stadium Authority; who persuaded Unitas to approve the project, as a tribute not only to No. 19, but to all the great Baltimore Colts; who raised the needed money - about $250,000 - without getting a cent from the city or state; and who sculpted the astonishingly accurate likeness (right down to the unusual way Unitas laced his shoes, wrapping one loop around the other before tying a second knot) in the studio of his Lutherville home.

"You get, as the NFL team in town, a lot of people calling with a lot of ideas, some good, some not so good," says Kevin Byrne, the Ravens' vice president of public and community relations. "When Fred called me about the statue and asked would we be interested in having it up at the stadium, we said yes, but we have neither the time nor the ability to make it happen.

"It was like, `Yeah, if you can do that, God love ya,' " Byrne explains. "I really didn't anticipate hearing back from him. But then he came back to us and said, `I'm going to raise $250,000, and by the way, would you like to start us off with $25,000?' "

The team agreed, and minority owner Steve Buschetti chipped in another $25,000. So, too, did the Orioles - a rare moment of cooperation between Baltimore's dominant sports franchises. Tomorrow, Baltimore football fans officially get their statue.

No holding back

Standing with Kail as he watches masonry workers secure the statue's base outside Ravens Stadium, it's hard to picture anyone better suited to the task of paying lasting tribute to Unitas. Qualifications aside - including a pair of sculptures in Indianapolis' National Art Museum of Sport - he simply looks and acts the part. Like Unitas, whose famously damaged knees barely seemed capable of supporting his body, Kail walks with a limp - the result of an adolescent bout with polio. Dressed in simple tan pants and a blue jacket, his face lined in a way that both obscures his 65 years but suggests he's earned every one of them, Kail walks slowly, unassumingly, uncomfortable in the spotlight, his hands stuck firmly in his pockets.

He's even trying to think like Johnny U. Besides unveiling the statue tomorrow, he'll be presenting a check for $30,000 - left over from his fund-raising efforts - to Unitas' Golden Arm Foundation. "That would have satisfied John, that would have made him happy," he says.

"I'm going to try to help the foundation," Kail promises, adding simply, "They've lost their man."

A native of Uniontown, Pa., a short drive from Unitas' hometown of Pittsburgh, the young Kail loved playing football, but polio cut that career short. Still, he continued playing; "I broke my brace twice playing football," he says. No doubt Unitas appreciated that sort of grit. "When I couldn't play, I kind of fell back on my artistic talent."

Growing up in western Pennsylvania's coal-mining country, Kail explains, "Everybody was poor in those days, so you made your own toys. I formed my own figures out of clay, because we couldn't afford anything else."

Kail, who by this time had moved with his family to Hagerstown, was good enough with his hands to earn a four-year scholarship the Maryland Institute College of Art. One day in the mid-'50s, on a whim, he crafted a ceramic figure of the Colts' Art Donovan that impressed friends enough that they persuaded him to take it down to the Colts' offices. "I walked in, set it down on the counter, and just said, `My friends over at the institute said I should bring this over and show it to you,' " he recalls.

Kail doesn't remember the receptionist's reaction, but soon John Steadman, the late News American and Sun sportswriter who was then working for the Colts, came to talk with him.

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