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As Long as We Remember...

September 13, 2002

John Constantine Unitas: Rest In Peace

John W. Ashbury

His mangled right hand clutched the pen in a funny way. He couldnít hold it like the rest of us. But he took the pen and wrote his name whenever he was asked. He never complained about the pain and he never refused to sign an autograph, at least I never heard that he did.

John Constantine Unitas died suddenly on Wednesday. Baltimore will never be the same. And neither will those of us who grew up marveling at his unique abilities with a football.

I consider myself lucky to have had the opportunity on several occasions to just sit down with him and chew the fat. I suppose that lucky isnít the right word. For it was far more important to me as a young family man.

He was an icon. He was a man of principle. He had a job to do every Sunday and he did it to the best of his abilities, which were immense. He almost single-handedly brought pride to a whole generation of Marylanders, and particularly Baltimoreans, when it was needed most. He was one of us.

I remember one of the first times I ever saw a Baltimore Colts game in person. I was seated in the end zone. I was excited, as you might expect. But what I saw that day told me just why John Unitas was the greatest quarterback to ever play the game.

It was after halftime. My memory isnít good enough to say exactly when. But the Colts had a "third and one" at the one inch line directly in front of my seat. Alan Ameche and Lenny Moore were in the backfield. Why remember who the receivers were because no quarterback in his right mind would pass with only an inch to go with those two horses behind him.

But pass he did. I think it was Raymond Berry, or perhaps Jimmy Orr. I donít remember. I do remember that the "largest outdoor insane asylum" erupted. It was deafening. And I was in the open end of the stadium, nothing to reverberate the sound.

There were other days like that. He called his own plays. He listened to the coaches and their suggestions. But even they did not know what Johnny U would actually do. They trusted him.

And when he accomplished something on the gridiron that was spectacular, he would shrug his stooped shoulder and slowly walk off the field as if he was closing his lunch pail at the steel plant and was heading home for a beer.

He wasnít rah-rah. He did the job he was paid to do and he did it the best he could under whatever circumstances he was dealt.

There is the famous story about an incident in a game against the Chicago Bears. The Colts were trailing and Unitas was marching them down the field. The protection in the pocket broke down and he was sacked by a big defensive end. A metal bar on his helmet was slammed into his nose, breaking it and causing profuse bleeding.

The team took a time-out and he hobbled to the bench. The trainers and the team physicians couldnít stop the bleeding. John wanted to go back into the game for the next play, but the bleeding wouldnít stop. A teammate grabbed a handful of mud from the sloppy field and shoved it up his nose.

On the next play from scrimmage, John threw a touchdown pass that was the margin of victory.

I worked in the press box for the Colts on Sundays in the 70ís. It was a wonderful time for me. It exposed me to a side of life I never would have experienced. In 1971 Unitas was approaching the end of his career. He was already a legend in the game, but he never let it swell his head.

One game was particularly brutal, at least from the prospective of the press box. I always stayed around after the work was done to talk to the national writers who covered the Colts and the visiting teams. Great men mostly, but a woman or two got in there somehow. So I left about an hour and a half after the game and made my way to the parking lot.

Those who worked on Sundays always parked in the same lot with the players. They were already there when we arrived, so chance meeting were always after the game.

On this particular Sunday, as I exited the stadium, there were about a hundred kids waiting by the entrance to get autographs. As I put the key in my car door I looked back toward that entrance. There was Unitas coming out.

He handed his overcoat to one of the bigger boys and proceeded, for the next hour, to sign his name. His hand wasnít mangled then. He didnít leave until all the kids had what they came for.

I just marveled. Here was the biggest name in professional football at that time giving of himself to others, just to make their day. He had to be in pain from the beating he took on the field that day, but he didnít complain.

I had another opportunity to witness his tolerance for pain. It wasnít too long after that incident. I was a member of the YMCA at Towson. After a rather mild workout, I came out of the weight room and sat down on a bench outside the racket ball court. I wasnít there too long when the door opened to the court and two men came out, one helping the other.

It was Unitas and a friend. The friend helped Unitas to the bench. John asked him to go call an ambulance.

As the man walked away I asked what was wrong. John said he thought he had just ripped his Achilles tendon. There was no pain on his face, only resolve.

For the next 15 minutes we talked. Not about his football career, or his accomplishments. No, he wanted to talk about me and why I was working out, and what I did for a living, and what I did for entertainment, and did I have a wife and kids, and how old they were and where they went to school and what they liked to do for fun. He told me short stories about raising his own children, but nothing about himself or his remarkable career.

Many times after that I would stop in at his Golden Arm Restaurant on York Road after work. He would be sitting at the bar chatting with the bartender. I would plop myself down a couple seats away and we would talk. Of course, football would come up from time to time. But it was always about other players on other teams. He never said a bad word to me about anyone. He knew I knew about the dirty players on some teams, but he would always praise them for the good things they did rather than their reputation.

That was the mark John Unitas left with me. I sometimes wish I had taken that tack myself.

We could recount here all the wonderful claims to fame that John Unitas had. Millions will remember an exciting play in a special game, or a record that will stand forever, unbroken now since the last game of the 1960 season.

But I will always remember the gentleman; the man who cared so much for others; the man who would visit the ailing mother of a fan in a hospital just because he was asked to do so; the man who would attend a charity event and not ask to be paid for his time.

It broke his heart when The Colts were stolen from his town. He refused to acknowledge the fact that another town in another state now bore that familiar horseshoe on helmets.

He was Baltimore football. He was everything that is so great about Baltimore. He loved his adopted hometown and it showed in everything he did.

There is a drive afoot to have Ravens Stadium in downtown Baltimore renamed the John Unitas Memorial Stadium.

I hope it is successful. There can be no more fitting tribute to a man who saved that blue collar town, who put pride into Charm City as much as anyone, and who died as he lived - a man to be admired.

John C. Unitas - Rest In Peace. You earned it the hard way and never complained. You were a shining example for and to the people, not only of Baltimore, but for a whole region, of what every man can be. And you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams.

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