- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 12, 2002

One of the NFL's royal family passed away yesterday.

There are certain players in sports who have reached a level of legend that they are revered far more than their brethren almost like a mythical place beyond the Hall of Fame for their respective sports.

Joe DiMaggio was like that. So was Ted Williams. Hank Aaron carries that kind of weight.

In the NFL, Johnny Unitas was royalty. There have been many great quarterbacks in the NFL, but none carried the sort of aura of blue-collar Sunday toughness and excellence that Unitas did.

Yesterday he died of a heart attack. He died far too young, at the age of 69. It was clear that he paid a price for the toughness that he gave to all of us. It was his gift to a generation of football fans.

Like so many old NFL players, he was in pain. At the end, his right hand was so badly cramped that he could barely hold a pen or button a shirt. He once told me a story about being invited to throw out the first pitch before a Houston Astros game a few years ago. "I told them I can't really do it, but they insisted that I try," he said. "When I got to the mound, I motioned for the catcher to come closer. I still bounced the ball to home plate. It was embarrassing."

And what did he have to show for it from the NFL? They wouldn't even give him a disability payment for the injury, which he received in an exhibition game in 1968 but didn't suffer from the nerve damage until nearly 30 years later.

Johnny Unitas deserved better from the league he helped build.

He was the leader of the Baltimore Colts when the city was football crazy, when old Memorial Stadium was called the world's largest outdoor insane asylum, yet he was always cool and calm in the middle of the chaos. He was one of the league's all-time stars, yet he never did anything to call attention to himself except play hard and throw touchdowns.

A two-time Most Valuable Player, Unitas threw 290 touchdowns over his 18-year career, including a span of 47 straight games when he had a touchdown pass. He led the Colts to three NFL championships, and might have had the fourth if Don Shula had put him in Super Bowl III against the New York Jets earlier than he did.

Johnny Unitas deserved better than he got from the franchise he helped build.

At the end of his career, he was embarrassed by the new owner, Bob Irsay, and his general manager, Joe Thomas. Unitas told me about his last appearance for the Baltimore Colts. "Joe Thomas didn't want anyone from the old Carroll Rosenbloom regime around," he said. "He told John Sandusky (the Colts' coach in Unitas' final season there in 1972) that I would never play another down in a Baltimore Colt uniform. John told me that, and I said, 'You've got your orders, nothing I can do about it. I will not run the clock out for you,' and he said, 'We would never make you do that.'

"We were playing Buffalo in the last game of the season, and Marty Domres got injured," Unitas said. "Sandusky looked at me, and I should have said, 'I'm not going into the ballgame. It's their problem.' But I took my jacket off and put my helmet on."

As Unitas ran on the field, an airplane pulling a banner flew over Memorial Stadium. The banner read, "Unitas We Stand."

"It was like something out of a Hollywood movie," Unitas said.

Of course, Unitas came in and threw a touchdown pass to Eddie Hinton, and that was the last time he ever played for the Baltimore Colts. He was traded to the San Diego Chargers in the offseason, but he was through, and appeared in just five games, throwing three touchdowns and seven interceptions.

It seemed as if Unitas was created for one thing to be a quarterback. The Pittsburgh Steelers didn't realize it at first, cutting him from their camp in 1955. He spent a year in semi-pro ball, then was signed by the Colts as a backup to George Shaw. When Shaw got hurt early in the 1956 season, Unitas got his chance to play, and made the most of it, earning the starting job.

"You've got to be willing to put in the time and effort," he once told me. "While the guys are out drinking beer and having a good time, I was watching film or studying game plans."

He never had the same touch of excellence off the football field that he did on it. Unitas ran into a series of financial difficulties through bad business decisions after he retired. Then there were the health problems, the knee replacements, the golden right arm that was nearly useless and the heart troubles that did him in at the end.

Johnny Unitas deserved better at the end.


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