A golden legacy begins on a new playing field

Dedication: Towson University renames its stadium in honor of Colts legend Johnny Unitas.

October 12, 2003|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

For the dedication of Towson University's stadium to Johnny Unitas yesterday, fans filled the bleachers as if the Colts legend himself were playing.

Thousands of people craned their necks to see the gleaming pewter letters on the side of the press box proclaiming the complex Unitas Stadium. They cheered during the halftime tribute to Baltimore's favorite quarterback, known as the "Golden Arm." And they recalled - with the home team winning and the sun shining - the Hall of Famer and the game he loved.

"I know he would have been pleased and humbled today," said Unitas' widow, Sandra Unitas. "The stadium, which now stands in his memory, will for ages reverberate with the sights and sounds of athletic events and the young athletes he so loved."

Not since Unitas helped unveil the new stadium last year - tossing the football at what would be his last public appearance - has the university sold more tickets to a football game.

About 8,125 attended the Towson Tigers' homecoming game at the officially christened Unitas Stadium, a 30-13 win over Holy Cross. The crowd was a few hundred short of the record set for last year's season-opener that was attended by Unitas.

No one knew then that it would be his last game. Unitas died of a heart attack less than a week later, Sept. 11, at age 69.

Sandra Unitas told the crowd she agreed with Josh Parker, a writer at the Towerlight, the university newspaper, who speculated: "I'm sure John is sitting in a rather modest corner of heaven smiling."

For yesterday's halftime celebration, 30 former Colts players unveiled a field sign in Unitas' honor. Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., first lady Kendel Ehrlich, Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr. and scores of Unitas' friends were in the stands and on the field to pay tribute.

The governor said one of his favorite memories of Unitas came during a fund-raiser on Capitol Hill. "During a question-and-answer session, someone asked [Unitas] what he would be making today, with the zillions of dollars players make these days. He told them $3 million. The room was silent - stunned," Ehrlich said. "Then he said, `Of course, I am 66 years old.'"

Vintage Unitas.

"Kendel always said he was the coolest celebrity because he didn't think of himself as a celebrity," Ehrlich said.

Other tributes to the Hall of Fame football hero include the Golden Arm Award, given each year to the nation's top college quarterback, and the 9-foot Unitas statue unveiled last year at the Ravens' stadium, now known as M&T Bank Stadium.

But the renaming of Towson's stadium may be the most grand display.

Sandra Unitas is fulfilling her husband's role as community ambassador for Towson athletics - the job he had taken just before his death. Unitas' oldest daughter and youngest son, Janice and Chad, graduated from Towson, and his youngest daughter, Paige, is currently a student.

Although Unitas' family is involved in a battle for control of the license to his famed name, the naming of the stadium for Unitas is not contested. "It's one of the points of harmony," said Robert R. Bowie Jr., a lawyer representing Johnny Unitas Jr. in the legal fight.

Sandra Unitas, the quarterback's second wife, along with an attorney and an accountant took control of Unitas Management Corp. from Johnny Unitas Jr. last winter.

With Unitas' blessing shortly before he died, the university had designated various levels of stadium donors as "Friends of Unitas" or "Golden Arm Circle" members to help cover the final $5.25 million cost of the $32 million stadium, which is used for football, men's and women's lacrosse, field hockey and track and field programs.

About $2.2 million has been raised since Unitas became involved, said university President Robert L. Caret.

Although most students are too young to remember Unitas' days on the field, many said they were proud to see his name on the stadium facade. "I wanted to be part of this historical event," said Jo Ann Mills, a Towson junior from Silver Spring who said she got chills during the halftime dedication.

"It's nice to see something in Baltimore with Johnny's name," said former Colts player and Unitas friend Rick Volk. "It's important for the whole community to remember him. He really was Baltimore."

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