(Baltimore Sun photo by Kim…)
She shares his surname, athleticism and demeanor, those who know her say. But Jillian Unitas, 22, is determined to blaze her own trail in the sports world, apart from that set by her late grandfather.
Unitas, media manager for this weekend's Grand Prix of Baltimore, is kin to Johnny Unitas, former Baltimore Colts quarterback and Pro Football Hall of Famer. It's a badge she wears proudly — but with care.
"I've never wanted to disappoint my last name, so I put a lot of pressure on myself," said Unitas, of Baldwin, who graduated from Flagler College (Fla.) in June with a degree in communications and an eye on a career in sports marketing.
"I know my name opens doors, but I want to be judged not for what my grandfather did, but for the work I put forth. I'm just trying to make a path for myself, and to work off my own merit."
Unitas' job this week runs the gamut from cranking out pre-race news releases, to posting updates on road closures, to managing social media sites for the Grand Prix (Facebook and Twitter). Come the weekend, after each race, she'll usher drivers to on-site media interviews
"Jillian has been wearing a lot of hats, and she's doing very well," said Jade Gurss, director of corporate communication for Andretti Sports Marketing, which is running the event.
"This job requires local knowledge, and she certainly has a local heritage. We were intrigued but not star-struck by her background; Andretti is a very prominent name itself. Who you are doesn't mean much when you sit down to write a news release."
Unitas admitted she "wasn't the most knowledgeable person about Indy cars" when she got the job in June, "but I'm picking up the terminology, and I now know all of the drivers.
"My parents call me Mario Andretti because I've always driven fast myself. My grandfather wasn't into racing, but he was a big Cadillac fan. When I was 6, he'd drive my brother and I around in his big brown Caddy — but it didn't have racing stripes, or flames."
Her father, John Unitas Jr., said that he sees a lot of his dad in his daughter.
"Jillian takes a page out of my father's book," he said. "She's quiet, she leads by example and she works hard. And when she's down, she just works harder."
A graduate of St. Paul's, Unitas played volleyball in college. A walk-on as a freshman, she earned a scholarship the following year. It was much the same route that Johnny Unitas took more than half a century ago, having signed as a free agent with the Colts on the way to a legendary 17-year career in which he passed for more than 40,000 yards and 290 touchdowns.
In retirement, his son said, Unitas bought a 20-acre farm in Baldwin, took Jillian and his other grandchildren on tractor rides around the property, and fixed up a go-cart for them to rattle around the place.
"My dad may not have followed auto racing, but he knew Andretti from seeing him at card shows," John Unitas Jr. said.
Jillian Unitas said that until her grandfather's death in 2002, she tagged along with him to celebrity golf events, which piqued her interest in sports marketing.
"I'd sit with him in the golf cart, and we'd talk about stuff," she said. "I loved spending one-on-one time with him. But [those events] also taught me how interviews work, and how cameras and public relations operate.
"That stuff doesn't faze me now. It's kind of nice to have an insider's view of this business, considering how I've seen it for so long."
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