A bitter son of Unitas quarterbacks comeback bid

March 18, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

THE BITTERNESS in John Unitas Jr.'s voice oozes out like hot tar.

"I wouldn't wish my life over the past three years on anybody," said the son of the Baltimore Colts' legendary quarterback, Johnny Unitas.

For more than two years, Unitas Jr. was locked in an ugly legal brawl with his father's second wife, Sandra Unitas, for control of the company that he and his father started in 1991 to represent and market the former Colt.

This week, for the first time since he was kicked out, sued and called a cheat, Unitas Jr. officially took control of Unitas Management Corp. Next week, he'll sift through the books and records to see what business is left.

His long-awaited reunion comes six months after Maryland's Court of Special Appeals ruled that Sandra Unitas and her late husband's personal representatives improperly took control of the company from Unitas Jr.

"It should never have happened," said Unitas Jr., 48, a burly man who resembles his father without the crewcut. "I am kind of shell-shocked. It is not like I am going out and celebrating at Morton's."

Unitas Jr. must now try to put the fight behind him and build the company. But it won't be easy - physically, logistically or emotionally. The fight has been too personal. It shattered the once-close bond between the quarterback's first and second families. And the company went into bankruptcy during the legal battle.

Unitas Jr. is the oldest son of Johnny Unitas' first marriage, to Dorothy Jean Hoelle, which produced five children. The quarterback had three children from his second marriage to Sandra Unitas.

"She [Sandra Unitas] is nothing to me," Unitas Jr. said with little emotion.

"I don't want to be rude to you, but I have absolutely no comment," Sandra Unitas said.

Stephen Nolan, the lawyer for Johnny Unitas' estate, and the personal representatives of the estate declined to comment because of continued litigation.

Unitas Jr. plans to review deals and arrangements made after he was ousted. He wants to revive marketing relationships that have disappeared during the litigation.

"It really is a mess," said Alan Grochal, bankruptcy attorney for Unitas Management. "The hope is that John can get beyond all of this and get the company back going. It became very difficult to do business with this hanging over its head."

But he said progress was made while Sandra Unitas was running the business.

Unitas Jr. faces plenty of issues. At least one creditor is coming after him personally and wants payment on a five-figure loan, he said. He owes his attorneys about $180,000 in legal fees, and this fall he will be back in court defending himself against allegations that he stole from his father.

"There is no evidence of that at all," said Unitas Jr.'s lawyer Robert Bowie Jr. "When he was accused of stealing from his father he said, `I worshipped the man.' And then he cried full tears in my conference room."

There might be more litigation, too. Unitas Jr., who is a real estate broker and an executive of a debt-collection agency, lost a third of his income after he was kicked out of the company. He also claims Unitas Management lost business opportunities and revenue.

"I just need to focus now on getting this business back and looking at all of the agreements that were done when I wasn't in charge, and start over," he said.

He wants to renegotiate the agreement with Towson University - negotiated after he was kicked out - that gave the business the exclusive right to name a stadium after his father. The agreement wouldn't allow Johnny Unitas' alma mater, the University of Louisville, to name its stadium after one of its most famous alumni, Unitas Jr. said.

Although he wants the university to continue to use the name and is honored that it is on the stadium, Unitas Jr. said, the agreement "needs to be amended."

"I would never have given them an exclusive. I want to turn this thing around and make it right for both Towson University and Unitas Management," he said.

The fight for Unitas Management erupted about four months after Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack Sept. 11, 2002.

Johnny Unitas owned 90 percent of the company and his son 10 percent. Upon his death, shares of the company transferred to Johnny Unitas' attorney, Charles Tatelbaum, and his accountant, Howard Moffet.

A shareholder agreement stipulated that the ownership of the company should go to his son in exchange for a $125,000 life insurance policy that would pay for the stock Tatelbaum and Moffet held.

But Tatelbaum and Moffet claimed that Johnny Unitas was suspicious that his son was "living beyond his means."

They asked Unitas Jr. for receipts and disbursements but didn't receive a response, they said in court papers. In January 2003, they voted him out and named Sandra Unitas president.

Lawsuits were filed in Baltimore County Circuit Court, and the judge ruled in Tatelbaum and Moffet's favor, giving them control of the company.

Five months later, they placed Unitas Management in bankruptcy and sued Unitas Jr., claiming he had "pillaged and ravaged" the company for his own benefit to "finance an extravagant lifestyle."

Unitas Jr. denies the allegations and was emotionally devastated after he initially lost in court. The fight drove a wedge between the two families.

Unitas Jr. said he and his siblings from the first family were not invited to the dedication of a site at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium where their father's ashes were spread.

"I, to this day, have never been by Dulaney Valley Gardens where he was buried," he said. "That was her deal. I do not need to go there to seek peace with my father."

Although he sees little chance of healing the wounds, he hopes to resurrect the business.

"I am the steward of his legacy," said Unitas Jr. "I am not going to let him get hurt."

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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