Former Baltimore Colts quarterback Johnny Unitas is No. 2 on… (Baltimore Sun photo by George…)
Last week, on what would have been his father's 79th birthday, Chad Unitas visited his grave at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens. There, on the edge of a pond filled with ducks and ringed by weeping willows, he knelt by the marble marker and spoke with the one many call football's greatest quarterback.
"I go there a couple of times a month, to ask my dad's advice about this and that," Unitas said. "He's been gone 10 years, but I can still hear his voice."
Johnny Unitas died of a heart attack Sept. 11, 2002. Yet his son can spout, word for word, the mantras that No. 19 lived by, both on the field and off.
"He'd tell us kids, 'No matter what you start, always finish it,' " Chad Unitas said.
How many times did the Baltimore Colts, left for dead, storm back to win in the final minutes on the play-calling acumen — and the gifted right arm — of their slope-shouldered quarterback?
"He'd tell us, 'Take the word "can't" out of your vocabulary. What did I tell you about that damn word? "Can't" means you're not willing to try,' " Chad Unitas said.
Who would have thought the ninth-round draft pick with the high-top shoes and the crablike gait, spurned by the Pittsburgh Steelers, would eventually set 22 NFL records, passing for more than 40,000 yards and for 290 touchdowns? Or that he would lead the Colts to back-to-back championships, in 1958 and 1959? Or that, for a mind-numbing 47 straight games, he would complete at least one touchdown pass — a mark that might never be broken?
Numbers meant nothing to Johnny Unitas.
"Statistics are for losers," he would mutter, in both good times and bad. So it's a cinch that his No. 2 ranking all-time among Maryland athletes wouldn't draw a smile from Johnny U.
"That's just the type of guy he was," Chad Unitas said. "Dad was never a 'me-me-me' kind of person. It was always, 'Did the team [or family] get the job done together?'
"But, honestly, he'd be honored that he finished No. 2."
A decade after his death, Unitas' celebrity lingers.
"People I've never met want to give me a hug, or shake my hand, or tell me a story, or start crying because of the effect Dad had on their lives," Chad Unitas said.
Sometimes, folks talk about football. Though Yankee Stadium held 67,000, at least a million people swear they witnessed Unitas' heroics in the Colts' 23-17 sudden-death championship victory over the New York Giants in 1958.
Sometimes, Chad Unitas said, fans approach him to talk about other stuff. Last year, at a Ravens home game, he was met by an elderly gentleman with a story to tell.
"The man said that, 12 years ago, he'd been eating breakfast alone, at a restaurant on York Road, when my dad sat down at a nearby table. Dad said, 'Come over and eat with me.'
"They shared a meal and talked about their families, their kids. Football, the man said, never came up. He just wanted me to know. That's the love that people have for my father and the presence he still has in their lives."
Chad Unitas never tires of listening.
"All the time, people ask, does it upset you to hear stories about your dad?" he said. "I say. 'No, but it would upset me if the stories stopped. That would mean that people don't care anymore and are moving on.' "
Baltimore won't forget. Ever.