- The Washington Times - Monday, September 16, 2002

BALTIMORE "Welcome to Unitas Stadium," read the banner that hung over the railing at the football stadium where the Baltimore Ravens played the Tampa Bay Buccaneers yesterday. It paid tribute to Johnny Unitas, the former great Baltimore Colts quarterback and the most revered sports figure in the history of this city, who died Wednesday of a heart attack at the age of 69.
It used to be called PSINet Stadium, but that company went bankrupt and, thankfully, so did the stadium name. One might argue that all stadium names are morally bankrupt, but that would mean that stadiums and ballparks have some special meaning, like they used to. They don't of course, at least not anymore.
RFK Stadium certainly meant something to Redskins fans. FedEx Field does not. It may someday, when time passes and better times come to the stadium. But by then it could be Papa John's Stadium, or America Online Field. All it takes is a couple of crooked company executives and some cooked books and, before you know it, the stadium you grew up watching your beloved team is no longer named after an oil company. And, that warm feeling you had as you went to Enron Field is no longer there.
Memorial Stadium used to mean something to Baltimore sports fans. In baseball, Camden Yards has stepped up admirably, in part because it wasn't called Texaco Field or some other corporate name. Despite a Super Bowl season, PSINet Stadium or Ravens Stadium or whatever this facility is called, has yet to mean anything more to fans here other than the place where the Ravens happen to play. After all, the Ravens won that championship on the road.
Four years of life is hardly enough time for a stadium to feel like home. But Art Modell and the Ravens could make the stadium age very quickly and cement its place in Baltimore football lore by doing what many fans in the city are suggesting name the stadium after Johnny Unitas.
Can you imagine, "We're coming to you live from Unitas Stadium." It would send chills down the spine of football fans everywhere, every time they heard it. It would not just define football in Baltimore, but would define the NFL as well. How ironic would that be? The place that the NFL ignored after the Colts left for Indianapolis in 1984 would become the most revered place in a league full of stadiums named Heinz and Invesco.
The Ravens have not recognized the outcry from the city to name the stadium after Unitas. Naming the stadium after the city's greatest player would force the franchise to give up lucrative naming rights and revenue. But the pressure is on.
An internet petition is growing in numbers, and Dan Rodricks, one of the Sun's Metro columnists, wrote on Friday that "Whether the Ravens do the right thing or not, you won't see any other name in this space again. Whenever I get to the place in a sentence where reference must be made to the stadium on Russell Street where the Ravens play, it'll be Unitas Stadium. Promise."
It was Unitas Stadium yesterday, as tribute was paid to Johnny U. Every flag surrounding the upper deck of the stadium was at half staff. They had a pair of Unitas' signature black hightop shoes in a case in the press box before three Baltimore police officers took them down to the field and placed them alongside the number 19 jersey painted on the Ravens sideline. The Baltimore Marching Ravens, formerly the Baltimore Colts Marching Band, formed the number 19 on the field as the crowd of more than 69,000 roared when they played the Colts Fight Song.
They played a video tribute on the giant video screens at the ends of Unitas Stadium. As the tribute continued two of Unitas' sons, JohnJr. and Kenneth, embraced and wiped away tears.
Ravens starting quarterback Chris Redman, one of Unitas' favorites (each went to University of Louisville, and Redman won the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award in 2000 as college football's top senior quarterback), wore a pair of black hightop shoes to honor his mentor.
They weren't exactly magic shoes. Redman was hardly Unitas-like (16 for 38, 141 yards and one interception which was run back 97 yards in the fourth quarter for a touchdown) as the Ravens fell 25-0. "It was tough," Redman said. "You always want to win, but it would have been special to win this game. I definitely wanted to win one for [Unitas]."
The NFL refused Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning permission to wear black hightops to honor Unitas and for once, the league happened to do something right by Johnny U, even if it was adhering to its no fun policies. It would have been an insult to have Unitas honored by a team owned by a member of the Irsay family. It's bad enough Jim Irsay will do what he can to milk the association even though Unitas never wanted to have anything to do with the Indianapolis Colts.
Maybe the moving men can wear black hightops when they load the trucks to move the team from Indianapolis to Los Angeles.
In Baltimore, the celebration of Johnny Unitas' life will continue. Tomorrow a funeral mass will be held at 10a.m. at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen in Baltimore. On Oct.20, in a ceremony already planned before Unitas died, a 20-foot statue of the great quarterback will be unveiled outside the stadium. That will kick off a three-day reunion of the Baltimore Colts. The reunion now will have more meaning than anyone expected.
And maybe, just maybe, the Baltimore Ravens, who cashed in on the devotion for football in this city when they moved from Cleveland seven years ago, will realize that none of it would have been possible without the golden arm of Johnny Unitas. It was he who created the passion that fills this $220million publicly funded stadium every home game.


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