Golden Legacy

Through her tears, Sandra Unitas steps up to carry her husband's legacy forward with energy and skill.

January 05, 2003|By Peter Jensen | By Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

Sandra Unitas remembers the first six days of grief as if she were a helpless observer. Her husband was dead. It didn't seem possible. She was there but she wasn't.

She was devastated, weeping uncontrollably for hours at a time. But she also had a house in Timonium filled with relatives and friends. She had a funeral to organize. Children to comfort. Obligations. Decisions.

Finally, she sought help from the man who had always been there for her.

"Give me a swift kick in the butt, John," was her unconventional prayer. "Keep me going."

It has been nearly four months since Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack on Sept. 11 and sent all of Baltimore into mourning, reeling from the loss of its most beloved hero, the greatest football quarterback of all time, the man with the golden arm.

For his widow, it has been a far more personal and more terrible blow. For 30 years, they were married. She was the loving wife and dutiful mother who quietly attended to home and family while her celebrated husband, the beloved football warrior, traveled in the spotlight.

Yet despite her grief, Sandra Unitas has taken up a new role -- that of standard-bearer for her husband's legacy. And for a woman who spent three decades in the background, family and friends marvel at the energy -- and skills -- she has brought to bear.

"She's a tough cookie, absolutely," says Nora Koontz, a longtime friend. "What she's doing now is part of her healing."

Recently, Sandra flew to Louisville to speak to hundreds gathered for the annual presentation of the Golden Arm Award, the honor going to the nation's top college quarterback.

She helped unveil a Unitas statue at the Ravens stadium, making remarks to more than 70,000 football fans at halftime of a Ravens game.

She has lobbied Maryland's governor-elect on behalf of the Babe Ruth Museum and overseen the museum's display of 200 pieces of her husband's memorabilia.

She's given speeches, done TV interviews. She's even taken a new job title, as "community liaison" for Towson University's multimillion-dollar stadium upgrade, helping sell the facility's naming rights. She'd like to see the facility named for her late husband, but knows she'll have to find $5 million to do it.

"I know what they say. You don't make any big decisions in the first year (after losing a spouse)," the 58-year-old Florida native says quietly. "I guess I'm going against all the recommendations."

She needs to be strong

It's been a remarkable transformation for a woman who rarely found herself in the public limelight. But friends say they aren't surprised, and think the one-time airline attendant will prove to be an effective spokeswoman for her husband's legacy.

"She has strong character, but she's been doubly strong because she knows that's what John would want her to do," says Claudia Grimm, 54, of Timonium, a friend for 22 years. "She feels a responsibility now to his legacy. She feels she needs to be as strong."

Being strong is something Sandra knows a little bit about. Seven years ago, she began talking publicly about her experience as an incest survivor. She recalled the terror of being a 5-year-old who was hurt by her own father.

Her Tallahassee childhood included an emotionally troubled stepfather, stints in foster care and even a court-ordered reassignment to her father. And while the traumatic effects of that experience linger (even a too-tight hug can raise painful memories), her marriage has been happy and stable, her children loving and supportive.

She calls John "the first man I could trust," making their long marriage all the more remarkable an accomplishment.

"My whole life was about him and the children and I was very satisfied with that," she says.

Their three children -- Joey, Chad and Paige, who are now 28, 24 and 20, respectively -- have always been remarkably unaffected by their father's celebrity, friends say.

They are typical twentysomethings, much in the same way that Sandra is the consummate suburban housewife with a Nordstrom wardrobe and an unaffected manner that so perfectly fit her late husband's modest demeanor.

"She's raised the kids remarkably well," says Shirley Green, 68, of Bethel Park, Pa., John's younger sister. "She had an inner strength. She was always down to earth, friendly and loved her kids."

Sandra met John 32 years ago while selling toys in Stewart's department store. She'd been hired to promote a new football game. So had he. Two years later, they were married in a Reno courthouse.

Parent by default

It was not always easy being married to a celebrity, of course. He was away a lot. In public places, they'd often find themselves besieged by autograph-seeking fans. But, she said, John never complained about the rigors of fame, so she didn't either.

"When people asked me what it was like to be married to a living legend, I'd tell them it was very lonely," she says.

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