Nineteen Touched By No. 19

John Unitas 1933 - 2002

October 20, 2002|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,Sun Staff

Unitas expert

Terry Musolf

Musolf grew up in Green Bay Packers country and still makes his home in Madison, Wis., but he is the authority on Unitas' legacy. His research and record-keeping has corrected statistical errors that had been perpetuated by the Colts and the NFL. His hobby began in 1957, when he was 11 and became mesmerized by a Colts-Packers game on his uncle's television.

"I've always been fascinated my mathematics, and I began to chart games, still do," Musolf said. "I subscribed to The News American for six months a year from 1961 to '83, got it in the mail three days late. I started writing to the Colts in 1959.

"I can't stand it when a number is wrong, and I would double- and triple-check their media guide every year. I was on the phone in 1961 with Herb Wright, the PR director, discussing a stat that I felt was incorrect. He asked if I would like to talk to John, and passed the phone to him. I couldn't speak for two minutes. Finally, I told him he was the greatest football player ever. He laughed and said, 'I haven't played long enough.' "

Nervous pupil

Eddie Hinton

The recipient of the last touchdown pass thrown by Unitas in Baltimore, Hinton doesn't consider their most vivid connection to be the simple crossing pattern that he converted into a 63-yard score on Dec. 3, 1972.

Hinton had been a star back at Oklahoma and had a rocky adjustment to wide receiver. The Colts won Super Bowl V in his second season with them, in 1970, but it was a trying year for Unitas. Three days after Thanksgiving, he rallied the Colts from a 17-0 deficit for a 21-20 win over Chicago despite five interceptions and a jittery Hinton, who had two drops on the Colts' second touchdown drive.

"John was always Mr. Unitas to me," said Hinton, who named his Texas real estate company Colts Development. "In that drive, John threw a perfect pass, and I dropped it between my legs. He called the same play, a 15-yard curl, and I dropped another perfect pass. On fourth down, he waves off the field-goal unit. He calls my number, and I made a one-handed catch on the sideline for a first down at the Bears' 7. We score, and I am emotionally distraught. I said, 'Mr. Unitas, why did you go to me a third time?' He said, 'Because I knew you were going to catch the damned ball.' "

Awe-struck schoolboy

Dick Jerardi

Jerardi has worked a thousand locker rooms and big events as a sports reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News. Four decades ago, when he was in the seventh or eighth grade at Cathedral School, he still placed his sporting heroes on a pedestal, and he had a difficult time comprehending the driver who pulled over as he hitch-hiked his way north on Charles Street.

"In my memory, a blue Lincoln pulled over," Jerardi said. "Everything's bigger when you're a kid, but it definitely was not a compact. The driver motioned me into the car, and I looked in and said to myself, 'That's Johnny Unitas.' He gave me a pleasant smile, and I was too stunned to speak. He knew that I knew who he was, and he knew I was petrified. He humored me for a few miles, until I had the presence of mind to ask him to let me off near my neighborhood. I ran home and told my brothers about it, but I'm not sure any of them believed me."

Chronicler

Cameron C. Snyder

Snyder, 86, first covered pro football for The Sun in 1950 and reported on Unitas' entire career in Baltimore. On the beat in 1956, he eyed a skinny quarterback prospect and thought, "No wonder Pittsburgh got rid of him." Just as modern newspapermen waited for comment from Cal Ripken Jr., Unitas unwound with some of the longest showers in the business. After one game Snyder got impatient, went searching and found Unitas under a shower head, being interviewed by John Steadman of the rival News-Post.

Snyder said that Unitas also cast a spell over Lou Michaels, a defensive end and place-kicker.

"Practices during training camp were labeled 'one beer' or 'two beer,' depending on the severity," Snyder said. "We were all down at Oz and Jenny's Pit [a Westminster tavern] after practice one day. Michaels, a huge, bear-like guy, could get nasty if he had one too many beers. Finally, John said, 'Lou, sit down and shut up.' I said, 'Oh, God, John's gonna have to fight him.' Then I looked over at Lou. He sat down and shut up. John was the boss."

Unlikely guest

Craig Kelley

Unitas scorned the Indianapolis Colts but had a soft spot for an employee of the Irsays. As a boy in New Orleans, Kelley idolized Unitas from the day his father brought home his autographed photo. The adulation grew as Kelley became a sports publicist, for none other than Indianapolis. When Unitas appeared at a 1997 fund-raiser in Richmond, Ind., Kelley offered to take him to the airport in Dayton, Ohio, 65 miles away.

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