5 years later, his city has changed, but love remains

Missing Unitas

September 16, 2007|By Kevin Van Valkenburg | Kevin Van Valkenburg,Sun Reporter

It's been five years since he left us.

Five years since his heart stopped at age 69, an act that, even now, feels much bigger than a man's physical death. It was dubbed the end of an era by a thousand scribes, but that barely scratched the surface. It was another reminder that even our granite-chinned icons - the ones whose strength we hope is a reflection and embodiment of our strength, as a city, a people, and a nation - cannot escape the steady drumbeat of mortality.

It has been five years since John Constantine Unitas, the "Greatest Quarterback Who Ever Lived," died on Sept. 11, 2002. And still, his passing stings.

Unitas would laugh to hear himself described in such idealized, romantic terms, according to his children and his wife, Sandra. It has become cliche to paint him as the simple man who represented something much larger than himself, the blue-collar idealist who did his job without complaint; the Golden Arm with the golden crew cut; the rare athlete who made an awkward shuffle and unorthodox throwing motion feel, especially in retrospect, like a work of both art and grace.

Even if the cliche is mostly truth (though admittedly mixed with a dash of black-and-white sentiment and blended with 1950s and '60s nostalgia), Unitas never saw himself that way. He was a steelworker, a ballplayer, a father, a husband, a friend. He was a man who liked to drink beer, golf and whistle whenever the spirit moved him, which was often. He loved listening to thunderstorms and good stories. He loved breaking bread with family and friends. He loved to tease the youngest of his eight children, Paige, whispering in her ear while she was practicing the piano, betting her that she couldn't finish without messing up.

It's gotten more difficult, though, in the five years since Unitas died to hold on to the places that either helped define him, or that were important to him. The steady waves of progress and time have eroded some of them entirely, the way the ocean chips away at limestone until there is nothing left. But if you know where to look, and if you listen to his children, his wife and some of his friends, you can still catch a glimpse of who Unitas was. You can still understand - or help someone young understand, if they're lucky - how he touched the lives of so many people in this city.

You'll see why, even today as the Ravens play their NFL home opener against the New York Jets, thousands of fans will stop in front of Unitas' bronze statue outside M&T Bank Stadium, reach out and rub his left shoe, hoping for a little bit of luck.

"A friend of mine told me once he was down by my dad's statue before a Baltimore-Pittsburgh game, and one of the Steelers fans walked up and spit on it," says Chris Unitas, one of Unitas' four sons from his first marriage. "About two seconds later, a Baltimore guy goes up and just cold-cocks him, just knocks him out with one punch. The guy was lying there on the ground and people were just walking by, stepping right over him, pretending not to notice. I had to laugh at that."

Club 4100

But the statue, as majestic as it is, probably isn't the best place to begin. Nor is Sports Legends at Camden Yards, even though you can see his jersey, his black high-top cleats and 200 pieces of Unitas memorabilia. You can even listen to a recording of him talking.

"It's tough hearing his voice," says Sandra Unitas, whom Unitas was married to for 30 years until he died. She still wears a gold necklace with Unitas' jersey number, 19, around her neck. "That's the hardest thing for me. I miss him. I miss everything about him."

Better perhaps to begin in the smoky, basement restaurant of Club 4100, a favorite Unitas hangout, which sits in the middle of Brooklyn Park, just over the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Bridge, where the city line meets the northern tip of Anne Arundel County. It was here, sitting next to the jukebox, enjoying a Budweiser (out of the bottle) or a Jack Daniels Manhattan (on the rocks, with a splash of cherry juice, and always served in a brandy snifter) that Unitas spent countless evenings over 43 years. So many that George Coutros, the establishment's original owner, is the godfather to Unitas' son Joey.

"It was a working-class place full of working-class people, and that's who he was," Joey Unitas says. "He might have been a superstar quarterback, but that never mattered to him. He wanted to be with people like him."

Club 4100 was, and is today, the kind of bar where waitresses learn your name and never forget it. It's the kind of place where the co-owner, Manny Spanomanolis, still washes glasses, wipes down the bar, and pours free shots of peach schnapps to chase your dinner if you look lonely. The walls are blanketed with photos of Baltimore sports legends, and Unitas is captured again and again in black and white, his right arm cocked, his grin frozen in time, looking barrel-chested and forever young.

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