Friday, January 2, 2004

BALTIMORE — A statue of Johnny Unitas stands near the Hamburg Street entrance of M&T Bank Stadium, and fans stop to touch it as they make their way into Baltimore Ravens games.

Fifteen months after his death, Unitas’ name still is revered not just in Baltimore, where the great quarterback played most of his Pro Football Hall of Fame career, but throughout professional football. But that name — and the money that can be made with it — is at the center of an ugly dispute that has torn his family apart.

A legal battle pits John Unitas Jr., one of Unitas’ sons from his first marriage, against Sandra Unitas, the late quarterback’s second wife. Each is seeking control of Unitas Management, the company formed by Johnny Unitas and John Jr. to manage licensing and sports-memorabilia deals for the former Baltimore Colts great.

The dispute has resulted in a lawsuit that charges John Jr. with mismanaging funds and defrauding the company — charges he has denied publicly — and has led Unitas Management to file for bankruptcy.

It also has caused considerable bitterness in both of the quarterback’s families and sorrow for friends and former teammates who are saddened to see the Unitas name at the center of such a distasteful public feud.

“It’s a tough situation,” said Lee Stotsky, a longtime friend of Johnny Unitas. “It has taken two families and ripped them apart. It is a shame it has come to this, because dragging John’s name around is not good for anyone.”

Tom Matte was Unitas’ teammate on the Colts and remains a friend of both families.

“I think it is sad what is happening. It’s very disappointing,” Matte said. “I hate to see this dirty laundry out there, to have John’s name dragged through this. I wish it could be resolved.”

It might be resolved this month, when the Maryland Court of Special Appeals is expected to decide who owns Unitas Management.

Unitas was one of the greatest stars in NFL history, a quarterback who broke nearly every league passing record and led the Colts to three championships in 18 seasons. He was a two-time Most Valuable Player and was chosen as the quarterback of the NFL’s All-Time team in 2000. In Baltimore, he was football.

“Johnny Unitas will always be a legendary name in NFL history,” NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue declared when Unitas died of a heart attack on September 11, 2002, at 69. But the quarterback was as troubled off the field as he was brilliant on it.

Unitas owned several businesses that failed, including a restaurant, a bowling alley and an air-freight company. He also made bad real-estate investments, and he and Sandra Unitas filed for personal bankruptcy protection in 1991.

Unitas also had difficulties in his family life. His 18-year marriage to Dorothy Unitas ended in divorce in 1972. They had five children: Janice, John Jr., Robert, Christopher and Kenneth. Dorothy died four months before Unitas.

Unitas married Sandra in 1972, and they had three children together: Francis Joseph, Chad and Alicia Ann Paige. Now the battle lines have been drawn between the two families.

“Johnny Unitas is one of the icons in the history of the NFL,” said Marc Ganis, president of Sports Corp., a sports-industry consulting firm. “And for many celebrities who have passed away, their value has been going up as advertisers have been using their images in marketing campaigns.”

Indeed, the estate of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt earned more than $20 million in the 18 months after his death in February 2001. The Unitas family is likely to earn a much more modest sum, an estimated $250,000 each year.

The fight began shortly after Unitas’ death, when the two designated personal representatives of the estate gained his 90 percent share of the company.

According to a shareholders agreement between John Jr. and his father, the representatives were supposed to turn the shares back over to John Jr., who owned 10 percent of Unitas Management, in exchange for a $125,000 insurance policy.

Instead, the two representatives — accountant Howard Moffet and lawyer Charles Tatelbaum, both longtime associates of Johnny Unitas — took control of the company and ousted John Jr. as president, and his wife, Christine, as secretary. The two men installed Sandra Unitas as president and offered John Jr. a job with the company, which he refused.

That was when the family feud took a nasty public turn.

In June, Sandra Unitas, Mr. Tatelbaum and Mr. Moffet filed a lawsuit that charged John Jr. with mismanagement and questionable spending that forced the company into bankruptcy.

They charged that in 1993, John Jr. changed the beneficiary of the life-insurance policy in dispute from Unitas Management to himself, without the knowledge of his father. Mr. Tatelbaum and Mr. Moffet said that was why they refused to accept the policy per the shareholders agreement and instead took control of the company.

They claimed that John Jr. made “substantial unauthorized and improper distributions to himself of cash and caused the payment of his personal obligations to be made by Unitas Management Corporation.”

They also charged that John Jr., through Unitas Management, borrowed funds from American Express and Wells Fargo and used the money to fund what they called an “extravagant lifestyle.”

John Jr. declined to comment for this story. However, he held a news conference after the lawsuit was filed in June and denied the charges. He said that Mr. Tatelbaum and Mr. Moffet had been involved in his father’s failed business deals in the past, that his father did not want them involved in Unitas Management when it was formed in 1991, and that they long had been seeking to gain control of the company.

“Tatelbaum and Moffet have engaged in a concerted effort to wrest control of the company away from me, beginning the day after my dad passed away, to the detriment of the entire Unitas family,” John Jr. said.

John Jr. dismissed the notion that he lived an extravagant lifestyle, noting that he drove a Volvo with 84,000 miles on it.

“Don’t you think I’d be living in a mansion somewhere?” he said. “If my father had a problem with my spending, he would have told me.”

His attorney, Robert Bowie, said John Jr. has been distraught over the legal battle.

“It has been devastating and incredibly unfair to him and his family,” Mr. Bowie said. “It was a father-and-son company that they managed over the kitchen table and they built together. The son worshipped the father. He was the namesake. They made it work and made it work for both families. … This was the only real successful company he was a part of, and it was the father and the son, totally.”

Sandra Unitas also declined to comment for this story, as did most of the remaining siblings.

Mr. Tatelbaum, who was accused of insurance fraud in March in a case in Florida, said Unitas Management is operating and working on licensing and marketing deals.

In October, Towson University, where three of Unitas’ children attended school, renamed its stadium “Unitas Stadium,” a deal that also will include merchandising.

“We have constant licensing requests, and they are moving forward,” Mr. Tatelbaum said. “The estate and the company should get what belongs to it. I think we are right. Mr. Bowie and his client think otherwise. We know what the books say. I would hope what comes out is a prompt resolution that the company gets what it is entitled to get.”

Mr. Tatelbaum said the matter is “polarizing” for the families.

How much so? Christopher Unitas said that when his father died, Sandra Unitas told him she would notify him of plans to inter his father’s ashes so that he and his family could attend.

“The next thing you know, I get a letter in the mail saying, ‘Here is where your father is buried,’ with it highlighted,” he said.

Johnny Unitas’ ashes may be buried, but his name remains painfully alive and not well to those he left behind.

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