The One After Unitas

From The Toy Department Catching Up With ...

July 29, 2009

He didn't have a crew cut, wear high-tops or walk with a funny, stoop-shouldered gait. Had Marty Domres looked the part, would it have mattered? Whoever replaced John Unitas as quarterback of the Baltimore Colts was sure to get booed.

The job fell to Domres, and when he took Unitas' place in 1972, the fans let him have it. No matter that Domres was a bright, articulate Ivy League graduate who had been a first-round draft pick. Unitas was their blue-collar hero.

Truth is, the two men hit it off. And while Domres played only three full seasons in Baltimore, he eventually settled here, stayed friends with Unitas and often played golf with him in retirement at Hillendale Country Club.

"I saw John at his house, not long before he passed away on Sept. 11, 2002," Domres said. "He was wearing a golf outfit, so I figured he was going out to play a round.

"John said, 'No, knucklehead, I'm going to church, like I do every morning.'

"I said, 'Say a prayer for me.' "

Unitas shook his head.

"I'd have to say a rosary for you," he told Domres.

Two days later, Unitas, 69, died of a heart attack. Domres attended the funeral.

"John was a great leader of men," he said. "I'd have loved to have had his career. That year we were together in '72, I'd kid him about the way he sauntered onto the field with that herky-jerky shuffle. I'd do it, and he'd say, 'Yeah, real funny, Mary.' "

The Colts were 1-4 that season when the Unitas, 39, was benched for Domres, whom the club had acquired from the San Diego Chargers. Behind the Columbia grad, the team split its next six contests before hosting the Buffalo Bills in the home finale. It would be Unitas' final game in Baltimore, though his chances of playing were slim.

"That game was the highlight of my career," said Domres, who passed for three touchdowns and ran for one as the Colts rolled to a 28-7 lead. But on that last touchdown, Domres suffered an apparent hip pointer and limped off the field.

The crowd smelled opportunity, thanks to Domres.

"They were shouting, 'We want Unitas!' and the chant grew as a plane flew over the stadium trailing a banner that read, 'UNITAS WE STAND,' " Domres said. "Coach John Sandusky met me at the sideline and said, 'Listen, I want to get John in the game, so go tell him that you can't play.'

"I said: 'If I tell [Unitas] that, he won't believe me. You tell him.' So Sandusky went to where John was sitting, 20 yards away, with his cape on and his legs crossed, and started talking. Then [Unitas] turned his head and looked toward me. I just pointed to my hip and shrugged my shoulders."

At that point, Domres said, Unitas flipped off his cape and the fans went nuts.

"When the Colts got the ball back and John trotted onto the field, the crescendo was deafening," Domres said. "He ran a couple of plays, then dropped back to pass and hit Eddie Hinton on a curl pattern. The ball fluttered a bit, but two defenders collided and Hinton went 63 yards for a touchdown. The noise? I can't imagine any sporting event having that decibel level.

"When John trotted back off the field, all of us had tears in our eyes. I remember every second. It was an unbelievably moving experience and the most memorable event of my career."

For his effort, Domres was named NFL Offensive Player of the Week. But he bowed to Unitas that day.

Now 62, Domres lives in Reisterstown with his wife, Christy, and works as a financial adviser with Deutsche Bank Alex. Brown. Nine years in the pros left him in good shape, save the three broken noses he suffered with the Colts.

"I should be thinner and have more hair, but I don't," he said. Domres still receives about 10 autograph requests each month and says he is "mystified" by the interest.

"It can only be because of my relationship with the Colts," he said, "and the guy that I happened to follow."

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