`Uni-tas' made kids' day at camp

John Unitas 1933 - 2002

October 20, 2002

The following article by Bob Cairns is excerpted from "Nostalgia: The Best Day Camp of Them All Was Operated by the Baltimore Colts," published in Sports Illustrated, Nov. 12, 1979.

Many of my friends spent their summer tucked away in camps with phony Indian names. Those little Hiawathas returned in late August with only a handful of ill-made gimp belts for our annual fall show-and-tell. On the other hand, I had the good fortune of being dropped off daily, with 60 cents in my hot little pocket, at the greatest day camp ever. My buddies and I spent our summers sitting on the hill at Western Maryland College watching the best football players in the NFL. I am still a bit of a snob when some rube wants to know if I "ever watched the Colts practice." I never considered myself a mere fan: I was a part of the team. I did everything except shower in Gill Gym and sleep in Albert Norman Ward Hall. I knew who was injured and who was beating bed check. I went to the same barber as John Unitas and knew Gino Marchetti before he became a famous hamburger.

In our early years with the Colts we would jog down the hill from Gill Gym and fall in just on the other side of the ropes for calisthenics as Coach Weeb Ewbank bellowed the cadence. After loosening up, I'd sneak up behind another of the guys, scream, "Ready! 4-3! Gold! 47! 52! Hut! Hut! Hut!" and then make my drop and look off an imaginary cornerback. My friends and I had an important advantage over the players. We never had to soak out the nightly soreness or feel the anxiety a fourth-round draft choice experiences as the last cut nears. Kids have no-cut contracts. We would always be back the next year, imitating, idolizing and kibitzing.

The little town of Westminster was proud of the team, and the squad was honored at an annual Colt night at the old State Theater. We kids packed the place and passed our little footballs forward during the autograph session. I can remember distinctly a conversation with my friend Hartzler in the late summer of 1956. "Who is Uni-tas?" he inquired after getting his ball signed. I went on at length, explaining that Uni-tas was a sixth-round choice brought in to replace aging tackle Tom Finnin. I was off just a little. Unitas was not a sixth-round choice or a lineman. He was the product of the most famous phone call since Alexander Graham Bell stepped into the next room and shouted into the receiver. And thank God Don Kellett, the Colts' general manager, made that call, because soon we stood in awe of Unitas, and the team did, too. Those of us in the fraternity called him John. Johnny and Unitas were for fans. We did not pull at his shirt for autographs or for a sign of recognition. When eye contact did occur, we nodded, said "John" softly and let it go at that. This was a busy man with championships to win, and we would not stand in his way.

Bob Cairns, who grew up in New Windsor, is director for college relations at North Carolina State University. He has published two books on baseball and writes weekly online columns on golf and football.

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