This barber poll has a Colts spin

February 02, 2007|By RICK MAESE

We're in the barber shop. In the waiting area. Doughnuts are on the table and Colts nuts fill the seats. For nearly 40 years, they've been coming to Gentlemen's Gentlemen on Joppa Road - old Baltimore Colts players, coaches, and front office executives. And plenty of fans. They still come and several are in here right now, invited to discuss, debate and dissect the similarities between the two best quarterbacks to play with a horseshoe on their helmets.

"The first time I saw Peyton in that Colts uniform, I thought to myself, `This guy looks just like him,'" says George Henderson. Henderson, 71, took a train up to New York for the 1958 championship game. He had season tickets for years and years. And he owned a sporting goods store that Unitas used to frequent.

"Even walks like him," says Rick Volk, a Colts safety from 1967 to 1975.

"I'll tell you what it is," says Tom Matte, 67, who played with the Colts from 1961 to 1972. "Peyton gets up there, and it's his offense. Just like John.

"That's the thing that makes him a great quarterback," he continues. "He has that air of confidence about him, especially in the huddle. John called all his own plays, ran the whole show. When you had Unitas in the huddle, there was always a calm."

Paul Lamantia has a customer in a chair, and the hum of clippers can be heard. Paul's dad, Sam Lamantia, 69, has owned and operated this "barber salon," as he calls it, for 39 years. He also founded the Ed Block Courage Awards.

"When you talk about a good quarterback today," Sam Lamantia says, "it's all about how he handles the game. Well, that was John. He was the best at that."

"Listen, let me tell you something," Matte says, and he starts smiling before his story even begins. "I remember - and Weeb Ewbank was the best at this - I remember Weeb Ewbank would call me to the sideline. He'd say, `Go in there and tell John to call ... ' and there'd be a long pause. `What, Coach? What do you want me to tell him?' `Um, um, just tell John to get a first down.'"

The room breaks into laughter.

"And that's the way it was," he continues. "John was our leader, and you can see the same thing in Peyton, even though the game has changed so much. How many quarterbacks today have the ability to run things the way Peyton does?"

The group briefly talks about Manning as a leader, and the writer in the room, who never had the pleasure of seeing Unitas play in person, asks how and why Manning would embody the same skills.

"It's not just his leadership, though," Matte says. "If you can take a look at the way the guy backs up, it's the same way."

"Let me ask something," 41-year-old Paul Lamantia asks between customers. "Do you think Peyton's emulating - on purpose, I mean - the way John once did everything?"

"Well, obviously his dad played in the NFL," Volk says. "He knows the history of the sport and the guys who came before. I'm sure he looked up the greats, studied them, and had his father right there to teach him this stuff."

The writer interjects again and mentions how out of all the pro sports, football players are most ignorant of the past. But Manning is an exception. Tom Callahan, who wrote the biography Johnny U, says Manning diligently studied Unitas, watched his footwork, his timing, his practice habits. Like Unitas and Raymond Berry, Manning would spend time after practice and even during the offseason working with his go-to guy, Marvin Harrison.

"I make no comparison with myself to him," Manning told Callahan. "I hold John in such high regard, it's an honor just to wear the same uniform. The fact that my number is one below his, and the fact that I wear the same horseshoe helmet, inspires me."

"I can tell you that John liked Peyton very much," Matte says. "John and I talked about Manning, and I can tell you he had great respect for the kid. He thought he was a complete football player."

A customer comes in for a quick cut. He played in the Colts' marching band from 1958 to 1966 and says with Unitas, you always knew a long bomb was coming on the first series. In fact, members of the band used to clear the field after their pre-game performance and race through the bowels of Memorial Stadium, hoping to get to their seats in time to see the deep pass. More often than not, the crowd reaction let them know they were too late.

"You know, if we're talking about how these guys are similar, I think of their character," says Lamantia, the shop proprietor. "In 2001, Peyton was chosen as a recipient of an Ed Block Courage Award. Because of a prior engagement, he couldn't attend the ceremony. He called me right away, said he couldn't make it, and he says to me, `I'll get back to you. I'll make this OK.' You know who came to the banquet? Archie Manning. He didn't have to do that."

"There are so many things about him, he's such a throwback," Henderson says.

"He could've played in our era," Matte says, "and he would've been respected."

Interesting point. Could Unitas have played in this one?

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